Photo by Ken Touchton

Tangier Island may be just a tiny sliver of land in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, but people throughout Virginia and beyond care deeply about the health needs of its people.

That simple fact was demonstrated again and again on October 4, 2008 when the Tangier Island Health Foundation held its groundbreaking to mark the impending construction of a modern health clinic to serve the island’s 600 residents.

“How we got here today was because of people responding,” said Foundation Chairman James N. Carter, Jr., who spearheaded the project after touring the current facility in November, 2005. “It’s amazing how many friends you all have.”

Public institutions, foundations and private individuals demonstrated their support through donations, grants, and pledges that met the $1.2 million cost for construction and equipment.  The new facility replaces a 50-year-old structure that’s cramped, ill-equipped and in serious disrepair.

With construction completed in 2010, islanders will have a vastly modernized clinic that will be able to handle far more of the islanders’ medical problems, enabling those who are sick to avoid costly trips to the mainland for care. The commute can even be dangerous when inclement weather creates rough seas, and can be particularly taxing on the elderly and those with serious illnesses.

Dr. David Nichols, named “Country Doctor of the Year” in a national competition in 2006, has provided medical care in the outdated facility for 29 years, commuting weekly by boat, plane or helicopter. In the early days it was sometimes so cold in the clinic that you could see your breath, he recounted. “But no one complained.”

When Carter first toured the clinic in 2005, it was an eye-opening experience for Dr. Nichols as well. Carter “made me realize I had become so focused on the patients here that I had become oblivious to the conditions,” Dr. Nichols said. He soon realized that a better future was within reach. “We knew we had a compelling story.”

Dr. Nichols made his comments on a brilliantly sunny Saturday on Tangier. He stood within the spray-painted footprint of the new clinic, with the Tangier water tower as a backdrop. What began as a small event with just a handful of key supporters (and the promise of a much larger celebration when the clinic opened in 2010) grew into an island happening. Nearly 200 townspeople attended, with town leaders organizing and hosting a pot-luck lunch for all—complete with live music—after the ceremony.

“Isolated the way we are, this new clinic is very much needed,” said Tangier Mayor James Eskridge, a resident waterman with deep family ties to the island. “We have had a lot of people working on this for a long time—people who don’t even live here, but they care about the community.”

Photo by Ken Touchton

State and federal grants have been supplemented by generous donations from foundations, civic clubs, churches, and individuals. Checks presented at the groundbreaking ranged from $760 raised by a church bake sale, to $12,000 worth of new medical equipment from regional Rotary clubs, to a $50,000 donation from Julien and Terri Patterson, residents of the Washington, D.C. area who have a vacation home in nearby Irvington, Virginia.

Some of the key professionals who have donated their time and expertise to the project from its inception were also recognized, including:

  • B.H.B. Hubbard, III, an Irvington lawyer who’s handled all the legal work for the new clinic
  • McGuireWoods Consulting, a Richmond firm that was instrumental in securing a $300,000 state grant from the 2006 Virginia General Assembly
  • William D. Prillaman, an Irvington architect who designed the new facility
  • David Jones, a White Stone contractor who coordinated the construction process
  • Nancy Dykeman, a Gloucester CPA who has handled all the clinic’s accounting work

Health care on Tangier took another leap forward in 2007, when Tangier native Inez Pruitt became the island’s first full-time medical professional. Pruitt, who started helping with filing at the clinic after dropping out of high school to marry, eventually earned her GED and, with encouragement from her clinic colleagues, returned to school in 2001 and completed her studies to become a physician’s assistant.

“This is my island, my home, my paradise,” said Pruitt, who was introduced by Dr. Nichols as “the future of Tangier health care.” “I am grateful for [the clinic] we have,” she said. “But I can’t tell you how much more grateful I am that we are getting a new facility.”

Photo by Ken Touchton

As the ceremony wound down, Carter asked everyone “to come up and turn a little piece of dirt.”

This belongs to all of us,” he said.

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