September 25, 2006
Dear Nominating Committee,
It’s a good thing Dr. David Nichols knows how to fly – some of his most beloved patients live on an isolated island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, an hour and a half by ferry from Virginia and shores.
For 27 years, Dr. Nichols has been piloting his own plane, and more recently, his helicopter, to the island every week to take care of people who haven’t always had a doctor to count on. When the weather is too risky for flight, he hires a boat and travels 20-plus miles to Reedville plus another 17 miles across rough waters to care for the people who depend on him.
Dr. Nichols first visited Tangier with his father while he was still in medical school. He was enchanted by the island and its people, with their deep family ties, stoic self-sufficiency, and Elizabethan English accents preserved through centuries of isolation. Seeing the need for better health care, Dr. Nichols promised himself that he would one day try to help. In the spring of 1979, just a few months after setting up his new family practice in White Stone, Virginia (a small town near the Bay), Dr. Nichols made good on his pledge.
Tangier’s residents were skeptical at first, believing he would only be able to visit intermittently and then quit as others had done in the past. But he promised he would be back every Thursday, come rain, shine, or snow, and that’s what he’s done. In addition to every Thursday, he also transports a physician’s assistant every other Monday in the helicopter.
Most of the people on Tangier make their living from the water, which can be difficult, dangerous work. Times are hard, and getting harder, as pollution and restrictions on fishing and crabbing squeeze away income.
Dr. Nichols’ island patients have roughly three times the medical problems as those at his White Stone practice, with unusually high levels of heart disease and diabetes. In fact, a genetic disorder, called Tangier Disease, was discovered on the island in 1961. It affects the protein that helps remove excess cholesterol from cells, so cholesterol builds up in organs and creates serious problems like coronary artery disease.
Forty-one percent of the 700 residents are 62 or older, the median household income is just over $26,000, and 70 percent of the population doesn’t own a vehicle.
Dr. Nichols has had a great influence on many people on the island, including me and my family, who, along with the majority of the other islanders, have lived on the island for generations. He gave my daughter the opportunity to volunteer at the clinic, and she is now a licensed practical nurse. His example and encouragement inspired me, at age 39, to go back to school five years ago to get my physician’s assistant license. When I graduate this December, I’ll be able to provide the first full-time medical presence on the island in many years.
My father, also born and raised here, gave the first donation to build our health clinic back in the late 1950s. Now, Dr. Nichols and other Tangier supporters are working to raise money to build and outfit a modern clinic to replace the old, poorly equipped one. The clinic needs more diagnostic equipment, expanded emergency and preventative services, and a lab that can screen for diseases. One of the state’s top consulting firms (McGuire Woods Consulting) is providing pro-bono services to shepherd a funding bill through the Virginia General Assembly to help us build the new clinic, and we have every reason to believe we’ll be successful.
Dr. Nichols has become part of our big Tangier family. He knows everyone by name, and laughs with us in the good times and cries with us in the bad. He has sacrificed his time and on occasion risked his life to get here when people are sick. As he has expanded his practice to include other doctors and nurses, he has brought them over as well, and they, too, have made an important contribution.
Dr. Nichols is gentle and thoughtful and always asks the right questions, trying to understand how best to help his patients. He sincerely cares about our well-being – not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.
As a testimony to how dearly loved Dr. Nichols is here, I’ve enclosed a notebook with a copy of the heartfelt thanks given to him seven years ago on his 20th anniversary serving the island.
On behalf on Tangier’s grateful townspeople and myself, I nominate Dr. Nichols for Country of the Year. Thank you for considering Dr. Nichols’ as a most worthy and deserving recipient of this honor.
E. Inez Pruitt