A Melancholy Return To Tangier
Thea Marshall revisits Tangier Island for the bitter-sweet dedication of a state-of-the-art health center.
When Garrison Keillor brings us news from the mythical Lake Woebegon, he reminds us that it's the town that time forgot. Well, there's a very real town across the bay from the Northern Neck that time almost forgot.
Tangier Island, an island of great sunsets, oysters, tranquility and a big problem that sunsets and great seafood catches can't cure. Serious health issues suffered by many of the 600 residents but now time has remembered, because of a most extraordinary man.
Dr. David Nichols established his private practice in White Stone 31 years ago; almost immediately, he began to keep a promise made to his father when they first visited the island while Nichols was still in medical school, to one day go back to Tangier to treat the islanders' ills, and he did, for 31 years.
Every Thursday, rain or shine, he flew, sometimes by plane, usually in his helicopter, to tend them out of a ramshackle clinic with no medical equipment to speak of, rusty pipes carrying undrinkable water. Soon, Dr. Copter became the hero of just about everyone on the island, because he treated just about everyone on the island, with a dedication and a kind of purity of purpose rather rare today or any day.
Well, about four years ago, he was named "Country Doctor of the Year" and you may have read the headlines, ones like this, "The Virginia Doctor Who Watches Over An Island." Today, the headlines are a bit different. "Island Clinic's Bittersweet Dedication," "Smiles And Sadness Greet Grand Opening of Tangier Island Clinic."
Well, let's go to the sweet and smiles first, brought about in large part by a patient and friend of Dr. Nichols and long-time developer on the Neck, James Carter, known to everyone as Jimmy. A few years ago, Carter went to Tangier with his friend and he was appalled at the condition of the old clinic. Nichols told him about his impossible dream of a modern clinic one day and from that visit grew Carter's founding of the Tangier Island Health Foundation to raise funds to replace the old clinic with a state-of-the-art medical facility, and it happened in a remarkably short time.
Funding came from private donors, the state and federal governments, pro bono services and more. On August 29th, the twenty-first century health clinic was dedicated and yes, it was bittersweet. After the ribbon cutting for the 1.7 million dollar clinic, the David B. Nichols Health Center, attended by the governor of Virginia, lots of other politicians and many hundreds of caring friends and patients, after the awards and speeches, Dr. Nichols looked out at the crowd and spoke quietly, gently, "I have a terminal illness and while I will leave you in body, I will never leave you in spirit. I will keep an eye on you. Remember, on Tangier you're a little closer to heaven."
This is Thea Marshall.