One was from Maura Lerner, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The other was from a producer for two NBC TV programs: Today and Dateline.
The question from both was the same: “Did you know you have conjoined twins coming to Mayo Clinic to be separated?”
I didn’t, and with good reason. When I called Dr. Christopher Moir, the Mayo Clinic pediatric surgeon who had led the team separating conjoined twins several years earlier, he was only slightly less surprised than I was.
“Really? I only spoke with their parents this morning!”
So Dr. Moir knew Abby and Isabelle Carlsen were coming to Rochester, but he hadn’t expected that intense media coverage would be a pre-existing condition.
Jesse and Amy Carlsen’s twin girls had been born on Nov. 29, 2005. Their local newspaper, The Fargo Forum, and the Fargo NBC TV affiliate almost immediately began following their story. By the time they arrived at Mayo Clinic, the Carlsens had already agreed to allow the NBC network programs and the two newspapers to document their journey.
While this was an exceptional story, our media relations approach at first was fairly standard: my colleague, John Murphy, and I escorted the visiting media as they came to follow the Carlsens through the process.
The girls had balloons surgically implanted, which were gradually filled with saline solution to stimulate tissue growth so there would be enough skin to close the incisions after their separation surgery.
The next few months were a combination of waiting for Abby and Belle to create more tissue while the surgical team developed the plan to divide shared organs and give both girls the best opportunity to survive and thrive.
The Forum and Star Tribune ran update stories which were picked up by the Associated Press, prompting other media interest. And Jesse and Amy created a Caring Bridge site for the girls, which developed a following of more than 1.4 million.
When the separation was scheduled for May 12, we had 70 journalists credentialed to be on campus to await the completion of the operation and the post-surgery news conference. Several satellite trucks parked nearby to enable live updates on the evening and 10 p.m. news programs.
Our first “new media” innovation in managing this story was to stream the news conference live from our MayoClinic.org website. Many of the Caring Bridge followers were able to watch directly, even in Jesse and Amy’s home state of Montana, where it wasn’t live on TV.
But the successful operation was only the first step; both girls were in critical condition for the 48 hours or so after surgery, and of course, the scores of media representatives called continually for updates.
That led us to develop a pseudo-blog on a special page we established on MayoClinic.org, so we could provide condition updates not only to interested journalists but also to the tens of thousands of well-wishers on Caring Bridge.
We developed a good approach with Jesse and Amy: they would post Caring Bridge updates on how they were doing as a family, and we posted medical information on the special page we created on MayoClinic.org. Each update was posted at the top of the page, in reverse chronological order…just like a blog.
We held two more news conferences with the Carlsens, on the one-week anniversary of the operation and also a week later at their farewell celebration as they prepared to return to Fargo.
When all of this happened Facebook was barely two years old and was limited to college students. Twitter only launched two months before the operation.
But yet a hacked-together simulated blog, along with the Caring Bridge site, showed us the potential for “new” media to help us serve our audiences more effectively.
If this story were happening today, innovations like 3D printing would undoubtedly aid surgical planning. Our Mayo Clinic News Network, built on WordPress blogging software, and our well-established social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter, would make the media relations aspect immensely easier.
The Carlsen story helped us to see the power and potential of digital communication platforms, which nudged us along the way to embracing social media. In the coming weeks, we’ll review some additional stories that played significant roles in Mayo Clinic’s social media journey.
Abby and Belle are doing phenomenally well today. Here’s a Star Tribune follow-up article that looks back on where they’ve been, and just how far they’ve come.
Lee Aase is a Communications Director for Mayo Clinic's Social & Digital Innovation team and is Director of the Mayo Clinic Social Media Network. This post is part of a series called Mayo Clinic's Double Helix: How Revolutionary Organization and Networked Communication Built America's #1 Hospital.