By Elizabeth Baier
Anyone who has spent much time in Minnesota's "Med City" can't help but notice that wheelchairs are everywhere.
From city parking ramps and downtown sidewalks to park trails and the local mall, the chairs have an inescapable presence.
More than likely that has do to with the fact that Rochester is home to Mayo Clinic, visited by thousands of patients every day. Many of them use wheelchairs to get around. So it's not surprising that they exist in big numbers.
The big curiosity is how they end up all over the city with their users nowhere in sight — a fact that some local residents can be oblivious to.
Denny and Carol Scanlan say empty wheelchairs are just part of the Rochester landscape.
"I never even thought of it until just now," Denny Scanlan says over a drink at American Legion Post 92, where he is a member. "Well, I see them kind of everywhere we go, I guess — where you least expect them."
"Yes," says his wife, with a laugh. "At the mall. In a restaurant. " She adds, "We're so used to it that I don't even notice it."
But some people do notice the big blue chairs.
At the Blue Water Salon on the skyway level of the Doubletree Hotel, owner Shelly Joseph often sees them just outside her door, in a public stairwell largely used by hotel staff.
"I don't know why they're in here, but randomly they're in this stairwell," she says. "It's a fire exit, basically."
At the Starbucks across the hall, manager Dawn Lee-Britt sees wheelchairs outside the employee entrance at the back of the coffee shop at least a couple of times a week.
"Sometimes we can't get out," she says. "I'm getting used to it because we see them so often." She adds: "It's like they don't need it anymore or it's time to go.
Mayo Clinic has 1,180 wheelchairs in its Rochester fleet, largely for patient transport. It loses up to 150 chairs each year, says general services manager Ralph Marquez, who oversees patient equipment.
At $550 each, that could be as much as $82,500 a year.
"Yes, it's a financial burden to us from that standpoint, but it's also a service we provide," Marquez says. "And if the patient, you know, truly comes first, sometimes that's the expense of the business."
Because the clinic does not want to keep patients from leaving the campus, the clinic's courier service rounds up wheelchairs weekly, mostly from hotels and other places that alert them.
But the chairs can travel much farther than that.
"We've gotten calls from Orlando Airport. Goodwill up in Duluth had one of our chairs and luckily we were able to retrieve that one. We've had them in Denver, out east in a few airports," Marquez says. "They get back to us dirty and needing to be cleaned. People may take them home for a while. They wind up everywhere."
That includes the Rochester Public Library, where communications manager John Hunziker considers wheelchairs normal.
"I'm sure if you aren't used to Rochester, seeing somebody going down the skyway, you know, pushing an IV on a rolling stand looks kind of weird," he says. "But it's just part of living in Rochester."
And on some days, part of Hunziker's job is to let the Mayo Clinic know there's a blue chair to pick up in the lobby.