No Man is an Island: The Sunbeam V and the Maine Seacoast Mission
The fog is a shifting entity, moving across the Isle Au Haut thoroughfare with a seeming sense of purpose.
Like children playing peekaboo, we see through its fingers to nearby Kimball Island; a ray of sunlight touches the Isle au Haut one-room schoolhouse to our right. When the fog allows us a glimpse to the northwest, we notice the 74-foot Sunbeam V steaming toward the island, a stark white cross adorning its forest-green hull. We break into an awkward jog, jostling bags and camera equipment. The Sunbeam V slows. We have been spotted by the captain, despite the fog, and he is matching our pace to join us at the town landing.
My family and I first encountered the Sunbeam V in August 2011 at the annual Frenchboro lobster dinner. Having hitched a ride to the dinner on a lobster boat provided by the Lunt family, we were told that the Sunbeam V would be available to transport us back to Mount Desert Island. Little did we realize that by accepting the generosity of the Sunbeam V crew we would be benefitting from the broad-based community, health, educational, and spiritual outreach that the nondenominational Maine Sea- coast Mission has offered to islanders for more than a century.
The Maine Seacoast Mission began in 1905 as a collaboration between Angus and Alex- ander MacDonald, two brothers who lived on Mount Desert Island. Both ministers, they recognized that coastal life had unique challenges. “Their primary concern was people living on islands,” says Reverend Scott Planting, who has served as the pres- ident of the Maine Seacoast Mission since 2010. “Back then, it was pretty rugged. There were no schools or health facilities— no services at all.”
The MacDonald brothers bought a 26-foot sloop, called the Hope, and began sailing to the islands and remote peninsulas, bringing books and other supplies. Their goal was to provide assistance in whatever areas were lacking—from spiritual support to educational opportunities and healthcare. Geographically, they reached from Monhe- gan and Matinicus Islands to the mainland of Washington County. After the Hope, six more boats—five of them called Sunbeam— have served in a similar capacity.
“We have covered basically the same footprint from downeast Maine to the midcoast for 110 years,” says Planting. “Doing basically the same thing, obviously modernized with telemedicine and state-of-the-art technology, but with the same very close connection to people, families, and communities.” Marty Shaw worked for the Maine Seacoast Mission for 17 years. “The isolation people lived with has always been there,” says Shaw. “It didn’t take very long to discover that life on an island is not the romantic one that many people think it is. It was often hard and lonely—as life is everywhere, but islands offer fewer options for people.”
“The Sunbeam continues to be important because isolation and other difficulties that come with living on an island still exist,” says Shaw. “The programs that the Sunbeam offers make a huge difference.”
The Sunbeam V is only one part of the Maine Seacoast Mission, which benefits roughly 3,000 people on eight islands and in numerous coastal communities. Based on West Street in Bar Harbor, the Maine Sea- coast Mission has an additional campus in Washington County. With a staff of 30 full- time employees (and 80 part-time teach- ers), the organization offers an impressive range of services, including a Christmas gift program, food pantries, after-school and summer initiatives for youth, health- care, counseling, funeral transportation, and emergency financial assistance for necessities such as heat and electricity. “We respond to needs and concerns as we see them,” says Planting. “Knowing people, knowing concerns, knowing people’s strengths and responding to them: that’s how we have always grown.”
Back on Isle au Haut, my colleague and I have made it to the town landing with little time to spare. Captain Mike Johnson is docking the boat with the help of Sunbeam V engineer Storey King. As we watch, King leans over the boat railing and throws my companion a rope the size of a tree trunk and says, “Here, attach this to that post.” This is island life. Everyone pitches in.
Entering the main cabin of the Sunbeam V, we find a dining area and attached kitch- en warmly accented with wood paneling and blue striped curtains. The cook and steward, Jillian (her full legal name), greets us each with hugs. Formerly a mixed media artist who grew up in New York, Jillian moved to Maine to rake blueberries. She volunteered with the Maine Seacoast Mission for ten years before joining the Sunbeam V.
Herself a vegetarian, Jillian prepares food to meet every taste—supplementing the boat’s provisions with her own garden veg- etables. Tonight’s meal will feature spring lettuce from her greenhouse; as a preview of things to come, she gives me a handful of small purple radishes that she has just harvested. “I have the freedom to cook whatever I want,” says Jillian. “I buy local to support people in my community.” While we are talking, an island fisherman brings her a halibut, pulled from the ocean hours before. She gratefully accepts his catch. In addition to feeding the crew, Jillian makes dinner for the islanders who are invited to join the Sunbeam V when they are docked.
In addition to regular island outreach, the Sunbeam V embarks on home health and telemedicine visits for three days every other week. These overnight journeys leave from Northeast Harbor and take the five-person crew to Frenchboro, Isle au Haut, and Matinicus. As a family physi- cian who practices on the coast of Maine, I am intrigued by the use of technology (and the expertise of a traveling nurse) to reach people who might not otherwise seek healthcare.
The director of the Telemedicine and Island Health Program, Sharon Daley, R.N., joined the Maine Seacoast Mission 15 years ago. Daley was raised in rural Missouri. “Growing up on a farm in the area that I did was very similar to island living,” says Daley. “With farmers and fisherman, one’s working on the land and one’s working on the water, but the lifestyle is really similar.”
Daley has done almost every type of nurs- ing—from pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital to home health and hospice nursing in rural Maine. Her time spent as a nurse on the Sunbeam V has been unique. “On this job, not only is it the whole person, it’s the whole community,” says Daley. “The crew of the boat is very involved in the com- munities without being enmeshed. I love being able to know the patient, their uncle, their aunt, their grandparents, their pets, and just the whole thing.”
Today’s first telemedicine appointment is scheduled for 2:15 p.m. A group of island residents has gathered in the main cabin. One sits on the futon couch, reading a copy of The Working Waterfront. Another talks with Jillian as she chops carrots. Four generations of one Isle au Haut family con- gregate in the dining area. It isn’t entirely clear which individuals are here to see the doctor, and which ones are simply recon- necting over cups of coffee; it feels as much like a neighborhood cafe as it does a waiting room.
In Daley’s office down the hall, a private sanctum has been created by steel walls and a hardwood door. The shelves are filled with reference books. Cups for urine samples and blood drawing supplies are neatly stacked to one side. A large televi- sion screen takes up the inner wall, directly across from a bench, which folds out into an exam table. Daley shows us a handheld camera, which can be used to send enlarged images of an infected finger or a sore throat. She also demonstrates a special stethoscope, which is designed to relay heart, lung, and bowel sounds to healthcare providers off-site. The Sunbeam V is part of a regional system called the New England Telehealth Consortium, which links 320 hospitals and other healthcare sites using a secure high-speed internet connection.
“We also have a bridge system so we can connect to anybody in the world who has access to the same equipment and net- work,” says Daley. “We occasionally do that with specialists. It’s a large, very well functioning system.”
Dr. Scott Schiff-Slater appears on the television screen in preparation for this afternoon’s appointments. Schiff-Slater is a native of New York who graduated from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and completed his training at the Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency program in Augusta before working in the Lewiston area for five years. “My goal is to make this type of medicine as normal as possible within the constraints of technology,” says Schiff-Slat- er, who now cares for patients at Hallowell Family Practice. Schiff-Slater and I com- pare notes on the challenges of encouraging middle-aged patients to have screening colonoscopies: his patients (who must leave the island to have this procedure) are even less enamored of the idea than the mainland patients I see each week.
“The medical problems may be the same here as they are in other parts of the world,” says Schiff-Slater. “But in Isle au Haut the way we approach things is different because what people want is very different.” Daley begins an office visit aboard the docked vessel the way she would in any other medical practice. She measures the patient’s blood pressure and weight, and collects pertinent information about his concerns, before faxing his chart to Schiff-Slater. Although some healthcare providers ask her to stay in the room while visiting with patients via telemedicine, Schiff-Slater prefers to see his patients alone.
Once the visit with the doctor is over, Daley can draw blood for laboratory testing to be dropped off on the mainland later or, from Matinicus, flown by plane, or arrange to have prescriptions sent to the island via mailboat. Daley also helps people with resources for dealing with addiction, or emotional and psychological issues requiring counseling. Daley augments the telemedicine appointments with home visits, where she monitors blood pressures, and follows up on medication changes or laboratory results.
Home visits play a critical role in staying connected with members of island com- munities—especially those where the population drops dramatically in winter months. Douglas Cornman, who has worked as the director of island outreach for almost two years, makes regular home visits to islanders. Trained in ballet, Cornman has a master’s degree in dance movement therapy and a background in counseling. Cornman is particularly adept at organizing activities that bring island communities together. This evening, Cornman tells me, the chil- dren of Isle au Haut will be decorating choc- olate cupcakes with fondant in the shapes of ladybugs and bees.
Before cupcakes, however, we sit down for dinner with the crew and their invited guests. Tonight, Jillian has prepared local mussels over pasta. We pass around large bowls of salad and bread with butter. There is a contented hum of conversation throughout the cabin. We share stories with Brenda and Bill Clark, 20-year residents of Isle au Haut who formerly lived in the Lincolnville-Rockland area. Their boat, the Double B, is moored not far from the Sunbeam V. “The Sunbeam is a place where people can get together and socialize,” says Brenda, who serves as the town librarian. “That’s important on an island.”
When dinner is over, we climb the stairs to the upper deck, to join the captain and engineer. Like the other members of the crew, Johnson and King have each had a long history with the boat, and have a fond- ness for the island communities they serve. “We know what’s going on on each of the islands,” says Johnson. “We feel like part of the family.”
Johnson graduated from Mount Desert Island High School in 1986. A native of Seal Harbor, Johnson earned a degree in public management from the University of Maine in Orono. He worked as a marina manager in Seattle for three years before his family convinced him to return to Maine. “When my dad called and wanted me to come home, I took the Sunbeam job as a tempo- rary gig,” says Johnson. “Then I fell in love with the organization and stayed.”
“The hospitality; the floating coffee shop— it’s so hard to convey the importance of that to the health of the islands,” says Johnson.
“It’s the small things that don’t get recognized that make all the difference,” says King, a graduate of Mount Desert Island High School and the Maine Maritime Acad- emy whose family has had ties to Southwest Harbor since the 1800s. King tells us the story of a ten-year-old boy who arrived on the Matinicus dock and desperately wanted to visit the Sunbeam V. He watched from his motorized vehicle as his friends climbed aboard. When King realized that the boy could not walk without assistance, he car- ried him. “We don’t look for issues to solve or create the issues ourselves,” says King. “There is no agenda. It’s about the people, not just the islands.”
As darkness falls over Isle au Haut, we are shown where we will sleep. One of us will be on the dining room futon. The other sleeping area, called the ‘honeymoon suite,’ has been carved out of the laundry room. A mattress is perched next to a set of shelves, which holds cans of soup and bags of chocolate chips. After a full day of island air, we give in to our dreams.
The next morning, we take a quick run on the Acadia National Park trails, detouring to get a look at Robinson’s Lighthouse. When we return, the Sunbeam V is again filled with people, all enjoying the community breakfast. Jillian is serving up bacon and muffins; Johnson is stationed at the sink, washing dish after dish.
And, just like that, our visit is over. We head to the mailboat for our return trip to Stonington. The fog slides across the shore once again as we watch Isle au Haut retreat in our wake. A cormorant flies overhead. Our visit to the Sunbeam V has served as a reminder that sustenance comes in many forms: it comes from radishes newly harvested; the caring touch of a nurse; and friends who gather around at breakfast. It comes from the type of outreach that the Maine Seacoast Mission has provided to island families since 1905.