What I Learned About Invisible Illness From My Time at the Mayo Clinic

Med City – a.k.a. Rochester, Minnesota – is the original location of Mayo Clinic. In its 127-year history, Mayo has gone from innovation to innovation. The town’s population is around 111,000 and 34,000 of those residents are employed by the Mayo Clinic. Most impressively, 1.3 million people from all 50 states and up to 150 countries come there for care. So basically it’s a city of sick people.

For many, the image of a city full of sick people is an image of visibly sick people. But my visit over the past three days has been anything but. I’ve seen a city of invisible illness.


Sure, there are people who are fighting their illnesses visibly. People wear high-tech respiratory masks to protect their immune system or pull oxygen tanks. Some are everyday wheelchair users and bring wheelchairs from home. Every business – from Walgreens to various hotels – has the distinct blue leather Mayo Clinic wheelchairs, which everyone, including myself, uses when they need to use them. But other than that, when you see a group of people walking down the street, it’s often impossible to know who is the patient and who are the caregivers.

I overheard a group of couples on the shuttle from my hotel talk about how delicious a local restaurant was and I became jealous, knowing I’ll never eat there due to my illness currently being labeled as gastroparesis. However, one of the women went on to explain that she had such poor circulation that blood pooled in her feet to the point of turning them purple and walking caused excruciating pain. I would have never known. However, being in Med City, I know a certain percentage of these “normal-looking” people are here because they are so sick, or perhaps their local health care system, regardless of it grandness or accolades, has given up on them.

Anyone who doesn’t believe in invisible illness, anyone who thinks you have to look like the man in a wheelchair on handicap placards to own one, anyone who has told a chronically ill young person “they’re too young to know what it means to be tired/sick/in pain, should come to Med City, sit on a bench outside of the Mayo Clinic and listen to our stories.

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Thinkstock photo via rruntsch.

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