While out at Mayo Clinic last week, I had many extraordinary experiences. Most were related to the Social Media Summit, including the extreme honor of participating with a panel speaking about patient empowerment and social media generated research. It truly was an experience of a lifetime, the culmination of many years of work to achieve an important personal goal.

I wasn’t prepared for how that would feel. And I definitely wasn’t ready for how I would feel about Mayo Clinic overall. That part of the story begins with Joleen.

As I made my way through Mayo Clinic that week, I saw the same woman three times. The first encounter was at 6:25 a.m. Monday in front of the gate between the Kahler subway level and the entrance to the Gonda building, a medical building that connects with the Mayo clinical building as well. I was scheduled to be at Desk C at 6:30 a.m. for blood work. The gate was locked. I’m quite sure I behaved like a mouse trapped in a shoe box, trying to scale the walls. Because in my world back home, if you haven’t arrived at “Desk C” in advance, your appointment is cancelled and you owe a cancellation fee, if not the entire cost of the visit. In my stupor of no food, water or — most important — caffeine, I panicked. Should I go above ground? Should I attempt to leave the Kahler and try to find the exterior door of the Gonda and work my way back down to Desk C? Certainly I would get lost. Perhaps buried in a snow storm. My family would never know! I was ill. This was much worse than being stuck in traffic on the metro D.C. beltway.

What I forgot, though, was that I was at Mayo Clinic, in Minnesota. Whether that is still considered the mid-west or the edge of the west, I’m not sure. But regardless, the people are, as my dairy farming grandparent from Indiana would say, “salt of the earth.” A woman with an open smiling face said, “You’re at the right place. Don’t worry.” And just like that, I stopped.

We didn’t exchange names, but she encouraged me about the Mayo system. Without being intrusive, she pointed out the identification code on my paper schedule and explained how I would present it, say my name and birth date, and very efficiently, soon be seen for whatever appointment or test I was to have. And she was not kidding. The gates glided open and a slow flood of people began their day at Desk C and beyond. In the next five hours, I did more than I would have been able to do in a year at home. AND, the results were accurate and available nearly immediately, thanks to the electronic medical records.

We met again in the atrium, as I was headed to get my EKG. We both laughed like long lost friends, but still didn’t exchange names. It was comical that in such a large busy place, we would connect again. This time, I learned that she was a regular, who had been coming from Nebraska for years, ever since the onset of her mother’s metastatic breast cancer. She said not to worry too much about the cost, because in her experience, the initial price at Mayo is less than at home, so in a way, it might make up for higher coinsurance expenses. Her mother had a medication that was three times more expensive at home, $3,600 per month. I marveled at the superior care at Mayo and she agreed. In fact, she is using the Mayo experience as the topic of her thesis, exploring how the efficiencies and culture of Mayo Clinic could be applied to our nation’s school systems. (Amen to that!)

On Wednesday, our third encounter, we finally made introductions. Joleen shared that this was how she spent her vacation each year. She would save up and come for a week to have everything taken care of at once. I could completely understand why. The beautiful buildings, lovely people, attention to detail, cleanliness … all of it makes Mayo seem other-worldly in health care. The sensation is of going to a museum to enjoy the art and scenery, but while you’re there, you might as well just fit in a head and neck CT. Why not? The staff is so efficient, you’ll have plenty of time! I actually took pictures of the statuary, murals, water features — even the goose in the cafeteria. It was like a holiday.

I miss my friend Joleen. We never once talked about why we were at Mayo Clinic. If she wasn’t feeling well, she never let it slip. And if she’s battling breast cancer, as her mother is, I think her beautiful spirit will help her win the fight.

I hope we meet again, Joleen.

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