Top 11 Minnesota health and environment stories in 2013

Among other stories, 2013 brought us mental health treatment successes, advanced CPR technology and a troubling absence of Monarch butterflies.

Health stories

Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

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A long-awaited study was published in April, linking time spent working in the taconite industry to a higher risk of mesothelioma. But it stopped short of pinpointing its cause.

Gene Olds, who worked as a millwright at the LTV Steel taconite plant in Hoyt Lakes for 38 years and now uses an oxygen tank to breathe, told MPR News before the study was released:

"It's something I don't wish on anyone. I just don't. It's hard on my family. It's hard on me. I can't do the things I always wanted to do."

2) Need your medical records? There's an app for that

Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

Obtaining one's health records is a notoriously difficult thing to do. But that is changing as paper files are moved to digital storage.

"It was not only an interesting gee whiz type of story about the ability to download medical files to a smart phone but also how this could be used in very basic way -- from patient to doctor. In addition, the issue also raised many security concerns as well," reporter Elizabeth Stawicki said.

3) A mental health treatment success story

Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

A July special report shined a light on Minnesota's mental health services, which are often all that stands between mentally ill people and life on the street or worse. One piece of that series was a conversation with Marlin Ivy, who is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. He recounted how went from surviving a suicide attempt to living in his own duplex and looking forward to life.

"I like to say that I'm someone who sets my alarm clock these days. Now I wake up in the morning and I turn my alarm clock off and I reset it. Because not only do I have things to today, I have things to do tomorrow," Ivy said.

MPR News producer Sam Choo had this to say:

"Marlin is an amazing individual with an incredible personal story. He has lived through some of the worst and best experiences that the mental health system provides for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans needing medical attention every year. Ivey's interview with Tom Crann let our audiences hear directly from one of the many people who are all too often only talked about."

Related: Minnesota's Mental State

4) Prolonging CPR to save more patients

In October, a report from health reporter Lorna Benson told us how technological advances in extended CPR devices helped save 56-year-old Tim Franko:

Franko's case is thought to be the world's longest example of extended CPR that successfully revived a patient with no heartbeat. But it's not the only recent case in Minnesota of a really long resuscitation.

Such cases of prolonged CPR are happening more often, in part thanks to advances in CPR technology - and to changing attitudes among physicians. Some say a patient now has a greater chance of surviving a prolonged cardiac arrest.

Says Benson:

"It was coincidence of course, but when I heard about this remarkable survival story I had just finished watching 'Django Unchained.' The movie has a running time of two hours and 45 minutes, which I remembered because that's a long time to sit on your couch (or in a theater, if you don't have small children tying you to home).

"So I processed Tim Franko's stunning two hour and 45 minute resuscitation through the lens of a long movie. A baseball game would have been comparable too, or even a flight from Minneapolis to New York.

"The point is; that's a long, long time to be clinically dead, then revived and discharged from the hospital 10 days later. Can Franko's CPR record be surpassed? It's hard to fathom. But who knows? This is an area of medicine and technology where the old rules may no longer apply."

5) Study: Later school starts benefit teens

Tim Post / MPR News

A CDC study published in December compared the grades of South Washington high school students before the school's start time was pushed back with those after the change and found that overall grade point averages went up by as much as a quarter of a point.

"I've noticed changes in the sleep patterns of my teenage daughter in recent years. She stays up too late and has a hard time getting up for school in the morning, something that's frustrated parents for generations. Researchers at the University of Minnesota say you can't blame teens for that behavior, staying up late and sleeping late is in their nature.

"In fact researchers say if the school day begins later, it improves teenagers' moods, grades and overall health. It's a change several Minnesota districts are considering, but one that they need to research carefully. Changing schedules can be a controversial move, especially when parents schedule their day around the opening and closing bells at school," reporter Tim Post said.

6) MNsure debuts, stumbles

Bill Catlin / MPR News

Unveiled in October, state officials described Minnesota's online health insurance marketplace security measures as "state of the art." Outside experts criticized that claim and identified several flaws that officials later said were fixed.

The website has also suffered from multiple performance issues that, in conjunction with pressing deadlines for Minnesotans without health insurance, make it story to watch in the coming weeks and into 2014.

Environmental stories

7) Listening for environment's pulse, in frogs' croaks

Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

In early summer, reporter Dan Olson spent a night traversing the wetlands of western Hennepin County with volunteer Madeleine Linck. She was gathering data for a survey gauging the presence of Minnesota's 14 frog and toad species -- a barometer for the greater environment.

"An audio memory is that as the evening deepened into night time we had the sense of truly being away from the city even though we were tramping around in the suburbs. The visual memory is the flip side; seeing how much of the western Twin Cities' swamps, bogs, lakes marshes and woods have been carved up by development," Olson said.

8) The disappearing Monarch

Getty Images

2013 was a bad year for Monarch butterflys, Minnesota's state butterfly and one of its most colorful summer residents. Scientists blamed extreme weather in the southern states for a massive die-off.

"[The story] made me watch my environment differently all summer. I'm so thankful for people like science teacher Dave Kust, who are willing to take time in their lives to help track something as elusive as a butterfly. It prompted me to spend my summer and fall waiting for sightings, taking hikes watching for bright orange fluttering around stands of milkweed.

"In late summer, there was a sign in our city garden - milkweed that had clearly been something's snack. No, I didn't see a Monarch but I was grateful for a story that helped me have a reason to watch my world that carefully," said editor Kate Smith.

9) More irrigation affects water quality

Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

A growing number of Minnesota farmers are relying on irrigation, and the DNR is concerned about the impact that's having on the quality of the state's ground water.

"I asked the DNR to provide some specific numbers and then traveled to Sherburne County, where a lot of farmers are irrigating their fields. The data I had looked at in the office played out before my eyes as I drove through the countryside.

"And it also was obvious what those fields would have looked like if they weren't irrigated — the edges of the fields where the irrigators couldn't reach were yellow and dry. It was one of my favorite stories because it was a clear example of how farming has changed in the state and how that could impact our water resources," reporter Elizabeth Dunbar said.

10) A pipeline to nowhere

Jackson Forderer / For MPR News

The Lewis & Clark Regional Water System is supposed to supply badly needed water to southwestern Minnesota. Problem is, the funding dried up before the pipeline from South Dakota could reach its destination.

"I've been following this water project for a while. I'd been told a few months ago that the pipeline ended basically in the middle of a farm field where it doesn't do anyone in Minnesota any good. So when Luverne moved ahead with plans to dig some more wells, I thought 'it's time to update the story.' As part of that, I wanted to be sure to go to the location where the project ended. It was a good spot to start the story, and I thought Jackson Forderer did a nice job of photographing this 'frozen' project," reporter Mark Steil said.

11) At long last, PolyMet study released

Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

An environmental impact statement for PolyMet, a proposed copper-nickel mining operation in northeast Minnesota, was released in December after years of waiting. It found that the project would need long-term water treatment to ensure potentially toxic rock won't pollute area waterways.

More top news of 2013 lists:
Top 12 stories from the Twin Cities in 2013
Top 12 stories from Greater Minnesota in 2013
Top 9 Minnesota arts stories in 2013
Top 9 Minnesota political stories from 2013