After working all day at the Mayo Clinic Health System in Owatonna, Dr. Brian Bunkers stops by Owatonna High School to do skin checks at the wrestling match.
Once home, he talks on the phone with Luke, his youngest son, about soccer tryouts. Meanwhile Bunker examines the foyer and living room, picking up remnants of something wicker, evidence that his dogs Harper and Ella had an exciting day.
He sighs, still in his gray suit, Mayo ID badge clipped to his front left pocket, and deposits the scraps in the trash.
“Are you on your way home? You can tell me about it when you get home,” Bunkers says to Luke.
The house is empty and quiet. Now that Luke is the only one of three kids still at home, and his wife Kari is in Arizona and often away on business, Bunker often reflects on what brought him here.
Just five years ago, the scene was much different. Kari would be home picking up the wicker among the commotion of three kids. Now, it’s a role reversal, as Bunker’s oldest son Nathan said.
“The family dynamic is always changing. We as a family evolved,” Nathan said, “and Mom and Dad, they’ve grown to understand that, too. They want that for us going through college or a career. They want things to be dynamic.”
Bunkers knew from a young age that he wanted to be a hometown doctor, but his wife had similar — practically identical — aspirations.
He grew up in Pipestone, the second of seven children, under the care of his father and mother, a nurse, as well as their hometown physician, Dr. Keys.
“He was my inspiration. I admired the way he cared for people and people respected him. Dr. Keys was a very important person in our community,” Bunkers said.
And so his dream of becoming a hometown doctor, well, simply put, he said, “It worked out.”
“From the start you can see how invested he was with his patients and the community and the formation of the group and how people work together and move forward,” said David Berg, chief administrative officer of Mayo Clinic Health System in Owatonna. “He stays grounded in the care of his patients. At the same time he looks ahead to what is happening in health care and embraces change and helps patients embrace it as well.”
Bunkers: Busy, beholden and bright
After graduating from high school in Pipestone, Bunkers went to college at St. John’s.
“I met this lovely young lady there who became my wife,” he said. “By the time we were seniors, we decided we wanted to plan a life together.”
He wanted to go on to medical school, so did Kari, “but she never really expressed it.” Still, they both applied and were accepted into med school at the University of Minnesota and got married the next year.
In 1988, they grabbed their degrees, wedding bands and all and took off for Appleton, Wisconsin, to do their medical training.
“They both have proved what they set out to do and I think it’s a testament of what a good family doctor is and the type of physician you want representing your health care system,” Nathan said.
Marianna said it’s cool that her parents went to college together and how they’ve been studying together ever since. Not too long ago they had to take a re-certification test where she saw how well her parents “feed off what each other is good at.”
“My mom has questions and my dad was helping her study but my dad is the worst at computers and my mom is really good at that. So that’s my mom’s job,” she said.
Kari’s position with Mayo Clinic Health System is in the office of population health management and care management service line, which involves a lot of work with computers.
The young doctor duo started looking for practice opportunities after living in Wisconsin for several years. Democratically, they mapped out interests to bring them closer to home. Kari grew up near the Twin Cities and Bunkers just three hours west.
“I said to her, ‘I had to be able to stand on the rooftop of my hospital and see a corn field,’ and she said she had to be within an hour of a major shopping center,” Bunkers said.
It almost sounds too good to be true. Even Bunkers admits, “Isn’t that a good story?”
“We’ve been here since 1991 and have no intentions of leaving,” he said.
When Berg first moved to Owatonna in 1994, he said Bunkers was one of the first folks he met. He said he was a relatively new physician at the time, but he remembers Bunkers “being so invested in making sure his practice and the patients he was seeing had the best of care.”
The Bunkers both started their careers at Mayo Clinic Health System in Owatonna and did not hesitate in starting a family either.
They traveled to Colombia in 1993 to adopt their first child, Nathan. The young family returned to adopt their daughter Marianna and one last time to adopt Luke.
Both Nate and Marianna are now in college. She’s at the University of Missouri and he’s at the University of Kansas. Luke has one more year left at OHS.
“I don’t think they missed a single game. It was always if one can’t go the other will,” Luke, the soccer stud dubbed captain of the OHS soccer team for his senior year.
He said when he first started playing on the junior varsity team, he “honestly wanted to quit,” but his parents kept encouraging him. By the end of the year, he said he was playing “significant minutes.”
“My mom is a role model for me in especially the way she perseveres. She left work for me and went back and still made time for us,” Luke said.
Bunkers was involved in all his kids’ athletic programs. First starting when Nathan joined basketball and he helped with coaching the team as well as Marianna’s soccer team.
He also believes in practicing what he preaches in term of fitness. He’s run in 29 marathons — participating 25 consecutive years at the Twin Cities marathon — and is an advocate of and involved with cross-country running.
“That’s how he’s prepared for his work life. It’s a marathon not a sprint,” Berg said.
Occasionally though, the doctor needs a Diet Coke, but everything’s good in moderation, right?
“You can tell with their crazy hectic lives they still really make an effort to be there for us whenever we needed it,” Marianna said.
For two years in high school, Marianna was a student athletic-trainer. Although she’s not pursuing the medical field like her father, they really bonded on the sidelines during those two years of training, the highlight being at the state football semi-finals.
“That was our thing. Friday night football games we were always together to have that time on the sidelines,” she said. “That was a cool thing we had that was just ours.”
Berg said that’s where you can see his patients for his practice carry over into his passion for the community. His commitment to OHS athletics is apparent even back when Berg first moved her and attended a Friday night football game.
“He was on the sideline to make sure players were cared for,” Berg said.
Bunkers has been the team doctor the last 25 years, hence the skin checks and sideline status. He was also recently appointed to be a member of the Community Task Force on Facilities, a group of community stakeholders and parents analyzing buildings in the Owatonna school district.
“Crazy hectic lives” is a whole different game when looking at the demands and responsibilities at the clinic.
There was a period of time when both Bunkers were working. They shared an on-call beeper and because they were both delivering babies, he said there was several instances the beeper, and babies, interrupted a few family functions.
“She chose to work, yes, but when our kids were young and growing up, she sacrificed her own career for our family and allowed me to excel in my career,” Bunkers said. “It took me a long time to figure outwhat a great gift that is.”
Excel is a humble way to describe Bunkers’ extensive resume.
“Mayo has come to see him as a leader as well. They look to Dr. Bunkers to help with difficult physician leadership issues. He’s just rock solid,” Berg said. “He’s a leader not only in the care of his patients and the scores his practice receives, but leads the group to be one of the most outstanding providers in southern Minnesota.”
Berg said when first starting out, the clinic was basically just general. Today there are 19 specialty care providers and 65 physicians.
“He provides the service a community like Owatonna can be proud of,” Berg said.
He was named Minnesota Family Physicians of the Year in 2006. He’s delivered 700 babies —“700 times and every time was just amazing witnessing the miracle of life,” he said — and sees 4,000 patients each year.
In his 25 years of working at the clinic, he’s experienced moments of sheer joy with patients and other times that, well, were the exact opposite.
For about 10 years in the beginning of his career, he was the deputy coroner and had to investigate all the Sudden Infant Deaths (SIDS) and “at times,” he said “there’s no words to comfort.”
On the flip side, his happiest times as a doctor were delivering tiny miracles, despite interfering beeper calls.
In addition to his practice, he’s had some leadership roles, primarily being the CEO of the Mayo Clinic in Owatonna for the past nine years, working closely with his administrative partner David Berg.
“A lot of what we’ve achieved in terms of advancing our clinic have been with our combined efforts,” Bunker said.
He said they always had great nurses and other physician partners. There are 450 people at the clinic, and each person contributes to the success of the clinic, Bunker said.
“When people recognize you or acknowledge the good things you do, you tend to think, ‘Oh, I did something great.’” he said. “But nothing happens without a team or someone else helping you. You get to a point in life where you really reflect on how much you can accomplish together.”
His hair has gone from a suave black to silver, still Bunkers continues his role as the hometown doctor. He even is mentoring younger physicians interested in pursing a path of medicine and said “it’s fun to see them mature.”
“He’s been able to mentor other leaders that can help bring health care further forward and so he’s not alone in developing successors,” Berg said.
The path he set on to be the next Dr. Keys came true. When Bunkers was young, he would observe Keys in an informal mentorship, which fueled his physician passion early on, and the fire still burns.
“I had, and still have a very robust practice,” he said. “The fact is, people are very generous to me and grateful but you’ve really got to stay humble. You just helped that one person, great. But what you did to the last person doesn’t matter to the next person. I have to focus on the patient in front of me.”
Bunkers said he owes his success to Kari for putting her career on the back burner.
“Growing up you could tell my mom had sacrificed a lot of her career just by raising us,” Marianna said. “I don’t think my dad would be where he is if she hadn’t done those things.”
Nathan said it was telling of the times that his dad was working and mom was at home, but now there are a lot more women in the workplace, so their role reversal is, again, telling of the times now.
“I think it’s a testament to the strength of the individual,” Nathan said of his mother. “Especially someone who is a minority in the sense that she’s a woman in a field dominated by men. I really respect her for that. I think it started to dawn on Mom the fact that, ‘I’m a doctor too. I didn’t go to medical school to be Dr. Brian Bunkers’ wife. I think it really kind of bugged her, but it also gave her lots of motivation to go do her own thing.”
Kari is still a family medicine doctor but primarily works in the administrative side of Mayo Clinic, and is doing very well Bunkers said.
“Now I can give back to her what she did for me. She can now have this latter part of her career to focus on her achievements,” Bunkers said.
Meanwhile, Bunkers continues healing, diagnosing, coaching, task forcing, mentoring, parenting, and giving.
This article was in dedication to Dr. Kari Bunkers, Dr. Brian Bunkers’ former classmate, forever confidante and fellow M.D.