I’ve spent the last week holed up in a Marriott in Rochester, MN. From my window, I can see a wig shop, a couple of bad restaurants, and Mayo Clinic.
This has proven to be one of the loneliest and disorienting adventures of my life.
I travel a lot on business, so I’m comfortable being alone. I have a little routine that I stick to when I’m on the road. It involves carefully organizing my hotel room to create a home-like environment and making friends with the hotel’s bartenders. I need to anesthetize myself with exactly two glasses of decent red wine in order to sleep in a foreign bed.
On paper, this trip was no different that the others. I was dispatched to a conference at Mayo, where I’m also filming doctors for a video series. I like to keep busy when I’m on the road, so I stack up as many activities as my schedule can bear. Then I return to my hotel, collect my wine, and collapse into bed.
What I didn’t take into account on this trip, though, were the sick people. As I’ve learned, there’s only one reason to visit Rochester, and that reason is Mayo. And, so, I am surrounded by illness. And it’s breaking my heart.
A small downtown surrounds the clinic. It’s made up of hotels, restaurants, and little else. Beyond the downtown is vast emptiness, broken only by a few strip malls.
“Is there anything to do here?” I asked the bartender on my first night.
“Are you a patient?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Then you’re out of luck.”
The clinic has a people-mover system that traffics patients to and fro with German-like efficiency. It is, without question, the best-run hospital I’ve ever visited.
“It’s like Disney World for the sick,” I said to one of the clinic’s executives.
“Funny you should mention that,” she said. “A group of us recently went to Disney World to discuss how we can better model their procedures.”
I’ve clocked a lot of time in hospitals over the past couple years with my elderly parents, so I can appreciate the awesome care that Mayo takes in meeting patient needs. But as a person who enjoys robust health, spending an entire week among the desperately ill is devastating. I want to help them all, but the best that I can do is prop open doors and give my arm to steady them as they struggle up stairs.
The wig shop is directly across from my hotel. It is the biggest wig shop I’ve ever seen. The window that faces Mayo has a cheerful display of mannequin heads wearing fetching wigs and scarves.
This morning, I walked past the wig shop on my way to get coffee. A middle-aged woman was gazing at the window display. She caught my eye and nodded toward the window. “I have to get one of these today,” she said, grabbing a lank of her thick brown hair. “My doctor says I should do it before my hair falls out. It gives you control over the disease. I’m thinking of getting the platinum blond one. I’ll show cancer that it can’t stop me from having fun!”
I laughed for the first time since arriving in Rochester. And I realized that I was wrong to have spent the past week feeling so sorry for the patients. They were taking charge of their bodies and taking measures to heal, while I was hiding in my hotel room and clinging to my wine glass.
In this holiday season, I wish you all the best of health and happiness. Also, a well-spring of joie de vivre to draw on when you need something stronger than a couple glasses of wine to get through life’s challenges.