• $10 Million Gift for Neurosurgery Residency Program, Addressing Nationwide Shortage

wide shot of Mayo Clinic Florida campus with blue sky and water in foreground
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A $10 million gift from a grateful patient and his wife will provide funding for a neurosurgery residency program on Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus to help address the nationwide shortage of specialists in head and spine procedures.

“There’s a tremendous need for training neurosurgeons in this country,” says Robert Wharen, Jr., M.D., chair of Neurosurgery at Mayo Clinic in Florida. “There is now a shortage of neurosurgeons, and that shortage is actually going to get worse, because there are more neurosurgeons retiring over the next 10 years than we are able to train.”

The $10 million gift from John and Carolyn Sonnentag of Mount Dora, Florida, will create an endowed fund to support the education of neurosurgery residents in perpetuity.

John Sonnentag had nearly lost the ability to walk due to a rare spinal tumor. For two years, he went from doctor to doctor, trying to discover the cause of debilitating pain that made it nearly impossible to sleep lying down, and eventually, to walk. A Tampa surgery group identified the tumor, but was not able to operate due to the tumor’s location. He was told only three neurosurgeons in the state could do it – and two were at Mayo Clinic in Florida. So nearly three years ago, the Sonnentags came to Mayo Clinic.

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Dr. Wharen scheduled surgery the next day, following another patient’s surgery for a tumor in exactly the same location on the spine.

“Mayo Clinic is extremely blessed to have such grateful patients,” Dr. Wharen says. “When I heard the Sonnentags were interested in funding the neurosurgery residency program, I felt very blessed, because I knew in the future, medical education is going to be a bigger and bigger challenge as health care funding becomes tighter and tighter. To have a grateful patient that’s willing to give us a gift that will endow a residency program in perpetuity, for generation after generation of neurosurgeons, is just unbelievable.”

When the Mayo residency program is fully developed, it will educate seven residents in various stages of their seven-year training. As one graduates, another will enter the program. So far, the program includes four residents, and a fifth will join them this summer.

The cost of training one future neurosurgeon for seven years now approaches $1 million. Dr. Wharen said Mayo Clinic in Florida was the first institution in several years to launch a new residency program because the government capped medical education funding many years ago. Therefore, starting a new program requires institutions to secure other funding sources.

The program also requires committed faculty. The residents will be trained by a team of experts in the Department of Neurosurgery at Mayo Clinic in Florida, which includes specialists in complex spine surgery, cranial surgery, brain tumors, epilepsy, functional nerve surgery, deep brain stimulation, vascular neurosurgery, aneurysm coiling and clipping, and arteriovenous malformations.

The residents will be trained in neurology, critical care, surgery on adults and children, trauma surgery, peripheral nerve surgery, focus on research or study in a particular area of neurosurgery, and then serve one year as chief resident.

“As the residency progresses and we graduate neurosurgeons, a few of them will end up being part of the Mayo staff. The majority will go into the neurosurgery workforce and help patients all across the country or around the world,” Dr. Wharen says.

The Sonnentags love to dance, but didn’t get to have a dance at their wedding. Because of the surgery, they were able to dance at their 50th wedding celebration in 2015 – and also to dance with Dr. Wharen and his wife, honored guests at the special event.

“We’re so blessed, and all that emotion and everything that happened to us is why we elected to do what we’re doing,” Carolyn Sonnentag says.

The Sonnentags, who built a small family concrete business in Wisconsin into multiple companies, say they have always supported education and want to help other families like theirs, who may need the expertise of a neurosurgeon like Dr. Wharen one day.

“We’re happy to do that, because maybe there’s somebody out there that needs that care,” John Sonnentag says. Dr. Wharen didn’t ask me if I could pay for it, he didn’t ask me any questions, he just said, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ Now he wants to further his vision, and I want to help him.”

Their gift creates the John H. and Carolyn O. Sonnentag Fund for Neurosurgery Residency in Florida, honoring Robert E. Wharen, Jr., M.D.


About Mayo Clinic Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit organization committed to medical research and education, and providing expert, whole-person care to everyone who needs healing. For more information, visit http://www.mayoclinic.com or http://www.newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org.


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