Thursday, January 18, 2018

My Island Home

By Marya Spurling

Raised in a small, close-knit community off the coast of Maine, this medical student never much wanted to leave

Marya Spurling

“Many people who hear about where I grew up have a difficult time understanding how it is possible to live in what seems to be such an isolated place, far from almost all conveniences,” says Marya Spurling. Photo: Kathleen Dooher

“Have you heard yet?” one of my former schoolmates hollered out the window of his rusty pickup as I rode my bike past the one-room schoolhouse we had both attended, on my way to visit a neighbor.

“Still waiting!” I shouted back.

For better or worse, coming from a small town means everyone knows what’s going on in your life. I had been waiting in agony to hear from medical schools, and my daily trip to the post office was filled with more dread each passing day.

“Still no news?  I’m keeping an eye out for you,” Joy, the postmaster, would say as I walked in to pick up my mail and my Nana’s. “Geez, how long will they leave you hanging?” my neighbor Bruce wondered.

When I finally did receive my acceptance from Tufts, the whole island knew within a day. Island—that’s right, my small-town home is on one of Maine’s offshore islands, year-round population: 75. “You mean you have to take a boat to get to your house?” is a question I often field from incredulous inquirers, among a host of other queries that follow.

Indeed, almost all aspects of life on Little Cranberry Island involve a boat of some kind. The island is one of Maine’s 15 un-bridged, offshore islands with year-round populations, scattered from Casco Bay to the Downeast region, where Little Cranberry is quietly situated with a view of Acadia National Park.

A ferry brings passengers and mail to and from the mainland three times a day, and more often in the summer. Winter storms often mean boat cancellations, making backup plans a necessity. As my father says, “You don’t get stuck on the island, you get stuck on the other side.”

Grocery shopping is done on the mainland, and the canvas bags make their way off the last ferry as everyone pitches in to form a chain and pass them up the steps and onto the dock. Most families’ livelihoods are earned on the water. Lobstering is the primary occupation for island residents, including my father.

Graduating Class of One

My younger sisters and I attended the one-room school on the island, which has two full-time teachers serving students from kindergarten through the eighth grade. My best friend Rachel and I were the only two students in our grade, and each of my sisters was the only student to graduate eighth grade in their respective years.

The 10 or 15 students in the school are divided into the older kids and the younger kids; each child is taught at his or her own pace, and often the “olders” are given responsibility to help teach the “youngers.”

Since there is no high school on the island, eighth-grade graduation is one of the biggest events of the year. The whole island gathers at the Neighborhood House, an old wooden building that has hosted plays, weddings, funerals, dances, dinners and graduations every year since before my father’s commencement, to wish the graduate, or graduates, well in a ceremony that involves a potluck dinner, speeches and presentations by the rest of the schoolchildren.

“Going off” for high school for me meant living with a family friend during the week while I attended the nearest public school and coming home on weekends. Other students may move farther away to stay with relatives or attend boarding schools. Back on the island, everyone follows their progress in athletics and school plays, so that the high school students’ absence isn’t quite so obtrusive.

It’s easy for others to see island life only for what it lacks—we don’t have athletic teams, a high school, a movie theater, a grocery store or a doctor’s office, aspects of daily life that most people take for granted—but as islanders, we have chosen to look past these absences.

We see island life for what it has that enriches our daily lives, and I can say with certainty that the opportunities I may have missed pale in comparison to what I have gained from being raised by a small island community off the coast of Maine.

Waiting in the Wind

My occasions to describe the unique place in which I grew up are often too brief to include the most important aspect of island life, that which is largely responsible for who I am today, and that is the life of the community.

Many people who hear about where I grew up have a difficult time understanding how it is possible to live in what seems to be such an isolated place, far from almost all conveniences. The answer that we are all quick to give is that the community sustains us. Our lives are intertwined, and as each member contributes to the life of the community, the community is the mainstay of each individual’s life.

Having been raised not only by my immediate family but also by my neighbors, I feel a responsibility to a larger family, one that is intergenerational, not all related, not always in agreement and encompasses a wealth of experiences and perspectives. As I was acutely aware during my pursuit of medical schools, we are all involved in each other’s lives. Each triumph is felt by all, and each loss echoes throughout the community.

The responsibility to our neighbors that is necessary for island life also works to the good of the health of island residents. The reason my grandmother and my elderly neighbors are able to remain on the island is that they can depend on family and neighbors to bring their groceries, mail, shovel their walkways and escort them off the island to appointments.

All appointments take place on the mainland and involve an entire day off the island—the early morning boat ride is a chance to catch up with neighbors for 45 minutes, and the rest of the day is filled with grocery shopping and errands of all kinds before rushing to catch the last boat home in the afternoon. As the ferry pulls into the harbor, the dock is lined with pickup trucks and family members waiting in the wind.

Island Health-care Challenge

Because there are no hospitals or doctor’s offices on the island, medical emergencies can be much more challenging. Standard medical emergency response almost always involves a lobster boat heading at full steam toward the mainland. I have vivid memories of being rushed off the island in my father’s lobster boat, the Pandora, after childhood scrapes, and once for an emergency appendectomy.

In recent years we have trained some island residents to become certified first responders and EMTs, and the town acquired a used ambulance to better respond to medical emergencies.

When my 94-year-old neighbor Herb took a nasty fall outside his home one cold November day, five of our neighbors and I were able to respond and stabilize him, while one of the lobstermen rowed out in the waves to bring his lobster boat off the mooring. The wind had kept all the lobstermen ashore that day. We brought Herb to the end of the dock in a stretcher, and the Barbara Ann took off through the chop toward the mainland, where another ambulance waited. After a brief hospital stay, Herb is now back home on the island.

During my last visit home for spring break, I attended a meeting for the island’s new Health Care Initiative, a group of island residents that is working to improve access to health care in our town. The initiative’s primary current project is to install a telemedicine unit in the Neighborhood House that will connect island residents with physicians on the mainland, so routine visits may not always require a trip off the island. This will make a difference especially for elderly residents, for whom a trip off the island can be very draining.

As I contemplate my own role in the community and my future in medicine, one of my visions is to provide medical care to the outer islands as a doctor who travels across the water to visit patients in their homes or community centers. An itinerant medical practice such as this wouldn’t be a cure-all, but nobody comes to the islands expecting an easy life. What they get is a life full of many shared challenges and rewards.

Marya Spurling, M13, is enrolled in the Tufts School of Medicine’s Maine Track program. For another glimpse of life on Little Cranberry Island, visit the town website.

Posted August 09, 2010