Photo courtesy of Penny George
Penny George shaking hands with the Dalai Lama at his home.
Penny George meets with the Dalai Lama at his home in Dharamsala, India
For anyone who has intersected with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing at Allina Health, the nation’s largest hospital-based integrative medicine center, and wondered if it was started by a guy with the last name of Penny and another guy with the last name of George: Nope. Penny George is one real, living person—and one who has helped change health care in our time. An example: A few years ago, Allina Health and Health Partners, two of Minnesota’s biggest health care companies, began offering cancer patients a personal navigator or coach to help book appointments, coordinate services, answer questions, and generally act as a close ally in the bewildering maze of high-stakes specialists. Most of these patients likely never stop to think about how they came to get a navigator (when a previous generation of cancer patients was forced to learn the cancer-care system from scratch). That’s fine with George—she just wants cancer patients to heal. Yet she’s the one who came up with the idea of formal, in-hospital coaching. Not only that, she fundraised for pilot programs to demonstrate that it worked, created an institution to support it, and finally sold the notion to hospital administrators. And she started half a dozen other initiatives that are transforming medicine as we speak.
A tall and fashionable 70-something with a fresh charisma that reads Kennedy Camelot era, George grew up in Frederick, Maryland, to a family that for generations had been equal parts doctors and ministers. I met her among the silk couches that decorate her George Family Foundation overlooking Kenwood Park. I’d wanted to do this interview for years. Folks in the national integrative medicine community talk about George the way bankers do Alexander Hamilton. Though she’s not the only one working to push integrative medicine into the mainstream, she has been a key player both locally and nationally. Just who is this chic force?
Not a coddled person, certainly. “I’m a doctor’s kid,” George tells me. “And you know, it was ‘the shoemaker’s kid gets no shoes.’ I was medically on my own, often.” She recalls breaking an ankle as a child, and her father casually waving it off for a day and a half before addressing it. This tough, self-reliant kid grew into a woman with a flinty and penetrating, yet warm, presence. She has an air of Julie Andrews’s Mary Poppins at her steeliest. She’ll catch you in her light hazel eyes with such a penetrating gaze that you half expect her to say, “Spit spot! And off we go!” and fly off to a place where she’s much more needed.
That penetrating part of her personality served her—and the country—well during the Vietnam War, when, for her first job out of college, she worked for the National Security Agency. “I got [the job] because I was good at a certain kind of reasoning,” she recalls. “The NSA is really code breakers. They break codes of foreign governments, and it takes a certain kind of analytical ability, inductive ability. If you see patterns in data, and leap to a good conclusion, and also know when there isn’t enough data to leap to a conclusion—that’s what I tested well at.”
During the war years, she fell in love with Bill George, who would eventually become the head of Medtronic. The two married in 1969, moved to Minnesota, and bought a house between Lake of the Isles and Hennepin Avenue, where they raised two boys who attended Breck School. In addition to being a Breck mom, Penny was a consulting psychologist with a specialty in assessing executives for local firms. “I think it was really there that I began to sort out my sense of how people who have trauma in their lives grow or heal,” she says of her psychology background. When her sons went off to college, George and her husband started the George Family Foundation, for what she describes now as “the usual checkbook philanthropy.” She also returned to school to get her doctorate, which she finished in 1995.
And then disaster struck. Within a year of receiving her doctorate she underwent a hysterectomy, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and had a mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone treatments. In the space of weeks, she went from herself to someone she didn’t recognize at all—someone hopeless, overwhelmed, isolated, and weak. Though she had great care at Abbott Northwestern, she says, “I basically became a breast and a disease. That was it. I had the best of everything, a great surgeon, the best chemo, but removing my breast only meant the cancer wasn’t there. That didn’t mean I was equipped to prevent a recurrence, or equipped in any way to live a healthy life.”
Friends from her Kenwood neighborhood showed her a way back. One helped wash her hair when she couldn’t raise her arms over her head. Another went with her to Abbott to act as a sidekick and coach. Through this same circle of Minneapolis friends, she found the shelves of healing and mindfulness books at the now-defunct Orr Books in Uptown. She started going to classes and groups at the pioneering Uptown health crisis resource center, Pathways. She heard about classes at the Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota and tried integrative treatments such as mind-body practices, massage, and traditional Chinese medicines.
George started to heal, but found her old career had little appeal. Was psychological consulting for employers really what she ought to do, now that she had seen a world of such need—and a world where she could see definite patterns and how to fix them? Her search for a new, post-cancer life took her to Canyonlands National Park in Utah. After several days of preparations she headed out, alone, into the desert. “I was four and a half days, four nights without food, by myself. Naked except for hiking boots, really, because that’s what they suggested, if you felt like doing it. There’s nobody to see you. I didn’t see anything living. I thought I saw a bird one time. It was an airplane way up high.”
She came out of the desert a new person. She knew two things she had never fully understood before: One, that she owed it to herself, and to her family, to really heal herself. “I realized that I had not been attentive to me. I was a lot attentive to my kids, to my husband. I was a lot attentive to the world out there, which is a woman’s thing. You know how it is: You care for everybody before you care for yourself. Finally, it’s like I got a two-by-four across my head that says, ‘OK, you’re in this too, what about you?’” She decided to commit to her own mindfulness, a better diet, and her health. She also had a bone-deep sense that her next work was to help change medicine. “I realized there were people around the country also like me, many of them having some sort of experience where [traditional] medicine let them down or was incomplete. Hospitals really needed to do something about the care they gave. It’s all about more than just a body part.”
Using her family foundation as a starting place, the organization began to seek out and fund—to the tune of as much as $2 million a year—the people and institutions who were working to complete the incomplete parts of medicine, the parts concerned with not just interventions on malfunctioning body parts or diseases, but with healing people in body, mind, and spirit.
She sought out like-minded philanthropists and co-founded the Bravewell Collaborative, a 12-year initiative that supported dozens of projects, including mapping the entirety of integrative medicine, such as identifying the various fields and who’s practicing/researching in each, and then organizing that information into directories. Bravewell also helped discover which therapies produced the most significant evidence-based results—things like acupuncture and biofeedback—and pushed this research in front of hospitals and insurance networks. (The reason we don’t hear much anymore about crystals or similar loopy new age therapies is because they were culled from the herd by initiatives such as Bravewell.) Additionally, Bravewell catalyzed the still-growing Academic Consortium for Integrative Medicine & Health, a group of some 60 medical schools, hospitals, and affiliated organizations, including Duke University, a pioneer in integrative medicine. Based near Washington, D.C., it runs conferences, funds initiatives, lobbies Washington, connects jobseekers in integrative health with those offering the jobs, and generally turbo-charges networking within the integrative medicine community.
The threads of these early successes came together in 2003 when George opened the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing at Abbott Northwestern. Today, the center is home to some 59 providers and practicioners—from internal medicine doctors to acupuncturists. It’s also inspired and informed integrative providers across the state and country.
Timothy Sielaff, chief medical officer at Allina, recalls his initial experience with the Penny George Institute: “I first came to Abbott Northwestern as a liver and pancreas surgeon. I really had never heard anything good about integrative medicine, as we call it now.” But then, at the suggestion of a nurse, Sielaff tapped the Penny George Institute to help create a more soothing hospital environment for one of his surgery patients. “The next time I saw the woman it was like night and day,” he says. “From that moment on I was hooked on making [integrative] resources available.” Sielaff describes George as “the key in the normalization and socialization of integrative medicine through our whole system.” One of the ways she helped normalize integrative medicine was by showing health insurance systems that it was in their best interest to support these programs, which result in happier patients who cost less. Case in point, according to research funded by George: Patients who have fewer narcotic painkillers and more massage and acupuncture are both happier with their recovery and save hospitals on average nearly a thousand dollars a patient, because fewer narcotics mean fewer narcotic addictions, fewer falls and injuries, and fewer side effects and drug interactions.
George doesn’t think her accomplishments could have occurred just anywhere. She believes Minnesota is uniquely positioned to embrace integrative medicine because of our native self-reliance and openness to wherever the evidence leads. “We’re kind of all cattle and no hat in Minnesota,” she says. “We don’t brag about ourselves but we’re open to practical solutions to things. [Integrative medicine] is another example of something that’s kind of a no-brainer. This is pretty simple stuff. Doing simple stuff can be a big deal. . . . We’re really moving all these systems to say: If you get sick, we’ll also offer you real choices, and we will look at you as a whole human being and not just treat your disease.”
Which is precisely what Penny George wanted when she got sick herself. Perhaps that’s where her air of the warm-but-stern all-seeing nanny comes into it: If you want a great many corporations and doctors to follow the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, it takes a hell of a lot stern looks and spoonsful of sugar.