Mayo Clinic nurse’s legacy lives on through letters and student learning

In an old family farmhouse outside small Delavan, Minnesota, Mike Hoffman is getting to know his mom a bit better. She died nearly 40 years ago, but through a stack of yellowed letters, Mike and his wife, Tami, are delving into a part of her life that they didn't previously know much about.

The farmhouse — known as Ashwood Farm — was homesteaded in 1862 and purchased by Mike’s ancestors in 1868. It most recently belonged to Mike’s uncle Mitch. When Mitch died in 2011, Mike and Tami purchased the farm and started sorting through family memories tucked away in closets and drawers throughout the house. Fading and frail, the volumes of letters they found from Mike’s mom, Jeanne Hoffman, detail joy, sorrow, adventure and a life intertwined with Mayo Clinic.

Coming to Mayo Clinic

Jeanne grew up on Ashwood Farm and lived there until she moved to Rochester, Minnesota, to attend Saint Marys School of Nursing in 1937.

"I just heard that we are going on the floor on Sunday. I don't think it's true, however, for we haven't learned enough yet," she wrote to her parents three weeks after arriving. She went on to share that Sister Cletus, the matron, commented that Jeanne and her classmates were the worst bedmakers she'd ever seen and that they had a lot to learn.

Jeanne took her training seriously and eventually gained the confidence of Sister Cletus and other instructors. According to family, Jeanne even helped care for William J. Mayo, M.D., at the Damon House where he lived near the end of his life. Jeanne's time at Saint Marys was one of great sorrow and transition for Mayo Clinic, with both Mayo brothers and Sister Joseph Dempsey, superintendent of Saint Marys Hospital, dying within months of each other.

After nursing school, Jeanne stayed at Saint Marys Hospital. "They are so busy here — usually 8 to 10 cases that can't get nurses daily — so you can see we are kept busy," she wrote. "Time off is a precious thing and hard to get."

However, Saint Marys Hospital would not be Jeanne's toughest nursing assignment.

Moving to the Military Front

Jeanne felt compelled to follow her brothers Mitch and Greg as well as her fiance, Bill Hoffman, into the military after the attack on Pearl Harbor launched the United States into World War II. A few months later, she sent her papers to the Navy, and in 1943, Ensign Jeanne Catherine Perrizo started her Navy service at a large hospital in Corona, California.

However, at the end of 1943 she wrote to her parents, "They are sending [N]avy nurses overseas now …. I don't want you to worry about this as I may never be sent out — and if and when the time comes, it doesn't pay to worry about it. I only hope I'll be big enough to take it all in my stride and do a good job."

On March 25, 1944, she arrived in Guadalcanal, part of the Solomon Islands and a battleground for many intense conflicts in the Pacific theater of the war. The fierce battles had subsided, but the dense tropical rainforest was challenging, especially for a nurse in the 1940s. "The weather isn't conducive to starched white uniforms, white shoes and least of all, rayon hose," she lamented in a letter shortly after arriving.

However, Jeanne’s most deep suffering came one evening after attending Mass on the base. A priest pulled her aside to deliver the devastating news that her brother Greg had been killed in the war. She wrote to her parents, "Just what one can say at a time like this, I don't know. Greg was everything that we could wish in a son and brother and our loss is great. God keep all of you — and give us all the courage we need to meet this tragedy."

It was amid the devastation and heartbreak of war that Jeanne's life again intersected with Mayo Clinic. An army reserve unit primarily staffed by Mayo Clinic personnel that organized a hospital in New Guinea would travel to nearby Guadalcanal where Jeanne was stationed. "It means a lot to work with those people you're used to and respect," she wrote. "It's almost a second [Mayo Clinic] here."

Returning Home

After the war, Jeanne returned home, married and continued her commitment to patients while raising a family in Blue Earth, Minnesota. She lived a few blocks from the hospital where she worked, caring for eight children during the day and patients most evenings after her husband returned from his shift at the local canning factory.

Mike says he doesn't remember his mom talking about her job, but once again, it was letters that gave him a glimpse into how she touched her patients and colleagues. "As the letters would come in after she passed away, they would talk about how extraordinary and devoted she was," he says. "She was such a kind and gentle woman, and the reaction you'd get from people she'd cared for was that they just loved her."

It was also during this time that Mayo Clinic again entered Jeanne's life when her son Joey developed a brain tumor and she returned to the familiar halls of Mayo Clinic for his care. Sadly, he passed away at age 9, but Jeanne and Bill found comfort in the compassion and care of Mayo's physicians and nurses during this difficult time.

Continuing the Legacy of Compassion

Jeanne again found comfort at Mayo Clinic when she herself was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1970s. She battled cancer for nearly a decade before passing away in 1983. In her last moments, she was surrounded by her large family and Mayo Clinic nurses carrying on the same values she had brought to so many patients.  

Mike and Tami didn't want that to be where Jeanne's story ended. They wanted a meaningful way to recognize her legacy and ultimately supported education opportunities for nurses, including scholarships to pursue additional skills and creation of the Jeanne Perrizo Hoffman Nursing Simulation Learning Lab with a gift of $2 million to Mayo Clinic. Opened in 2022, the center is available 24/7 and allows nurses to practice skills and receive real-time feedback using state-of-the-art technology. For their generosity, Mayo Clinic recognizes the Hoffmans as Principal Benefactors.

“My mom was a wonderfully kind, humble and caring woman who was a loving gift to her family and so many others,” says Mike. “She was a member of the greatest generation whose life was all about service — service to God, country and family. She would be very pleased to see the transformative skills laboratory and how it serves others in her profession by helping them learn and grow.”

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Hope & Healing, Stories of Hope
Hope & Healing
Hope & Healing