When Michelle and Angie Dowd were born in the summer of 1968, their parents and doctors in Austin, Minnesota, thought the girls were identical twins. But then Angie began thriving while Michelle did not. Eventually, doctors discovered why: Michelle had Hirschsprung's disease, a condition that affects the large intestine. Missing nerve cells in the muscles of the colon cause problems with passing stool. The diagnosis would lead to the discovery that Michelle and Angie were in fact fraternal, not identical twins.
It would also lead the family to Mayo Clinic, where Michelle would undergo surgery and follow-up treatment throughout her childhood. A large scar across her abdomen is a reminder of the operation that removed about a foot of her colon — and saved her life — when she was just a year old.
But Michelle's scar isn't the only legacy from the early days she and Angie spent at Mayo Clinic. The experiences made a deep impression on both women. "I remember we'd walk into Mayo, and I would feel very safe," Angie says. "I remember one hallway in particular. The art on the walls, the big windows, the light. I remember thinking, 'I'm going to be okay here, and so is Michelle.'"
Mayo's spaces and faces made an impact on Michelle as well. "I remember all of the crosses," she says. "And the vastness of Mayo and the different architecture really impressed me." So, too, did the nurses who cared for her. So much so that when she was 5 years old, Michelle requested and received a nurse's uniform for Christmas. "I knew I wanted to take care of babies like the nurses at the hospital," she says.
Eventually Michelle and Angie would both do just that, earning nursing degrees and beginning work in the pediatric unit of a hospital in Mankato. Angie worked days and Michelle worked nights, sometimes confusing patients and even some staff members. "Some people thought we were the same person and never left the hospital," Michelle says.
In 1996, that hospital would became part of Mayo Clinic Health System, a development Angie describes as "almost like divine intervention." It would give the sisters the opportunity to work for Mayo Clinic, a placed they'd long revered. "I was in tears when I heard Mayo was coming to Mankato," Michelle says. Working for Mayo "feels like a good way to pay back Mayo for all they have done for us," Angie tells us.
And, for all Mayo continues to do for the family. In 2004, Angie's youngest son, Joe, was diagnosed with Hirschsprung's disease, too. "We were worried, of course, but not to the point we thought what the heck is going to happen," Michael Dowd, Angie and Michelle's father, tells the Mankato Free Press. "We'd been down that road before."
That road has changed some in the 36 years since Dowd first walked it. "Our technology has … vastly improved," pediatric surgeon Christopher Moir, M.D., tells the Free Press. That means Joe was able to have "a more minimally invasive procedure to remove diseased portions of the intestines," according to the publication. Which led to a much shorter surgery and recovery than when Michelle was treated. "It's an excellent example of innovation at Mayo Clinic," Michelle tells us.
It's a type of innovation Joe may contribute to himself someday. He's got his sights set on a career in health care. Maybe even pediatric surgery. "He has a calling for medicine," Angie says. "I think he's intrigued to find out what it's like on the other side. Just like Michelle and me."
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