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In Rochester, abandoned wheelchairs are part of the landscape

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Collecting wheelchairs at the Kahler Grand Hotel
Mayo Clinic employee Kevin Acker collects wheelchairs from a hallway at the Kahler Grand Hotel on Sunday in Rochester.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

Anyone who has spent much time in Minnesota's "Med City" can't help but notice that wheelchairs are everywhere, often in unusual surroundings.

  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 slice of life that some local residents can be oblivious to.

Outside Chester's Kitchen and Bar
An unused wheelchair sits outside Chester's Kitchen and Bar in the Shops at University Square in downtown Rochester on Monday.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

  Local residents 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 said 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," said his wife, with a laugh. "At the mall. In a restaurant...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 outsider 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 said. "It's a fire exit, basically...I don't know if people are hiding them there."

Abandoned in the Rochester downtown subway
An unused wheelchair sits in the Rochester downtown subway on Monday.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News

  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 said. "I'm getting used to it because we see them so often...They're just always around. I don't know why. 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, said General Services Manager Ralph Marquez, who oversees patient equipment.

  At $550 each, that could be as much as $82,500 a year, but a small part of the clinic's budget.

  "Yes, it's a financial burden to us from that standpoint, but it's also a service we provide," Marquez said. "And if the patient, you know, truly comes first, sometimes that's the expense of the business."

Abandoned wheelchair on walking trail
An abandoned Mayo Clinic wheelchair sits on the Cascade Creek walking trail near Kutzky Park in Rochester.
Elizabeth Baier / MPR News

  Because the clinic does not want to restrict the wheelchairs from leaving the campus, the clinic's courier service rounds them up weekly, mostly from hotels and any other places that alert them.

  But Marquez said the chairs sometimes can travel great distances.

  "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," he said. "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 just another part of living in a medical community — just like oxygen tanks and IV stands.

  "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 said. "But it's just part of living in Rochester."

  And on some days, part of Hunziker's job is to let Mayo Clinic know there's a blue chair to pick up in the lobby.