America: Survival rests on lots of sacrificial shoulders

TANGIER ISLAND, Virginia. The tiny island and its marshes are dotted with crosses and signs of faith in the survival of this centuries-old community. Photos: David CrummTANGIER ISLAND, Virginia. In the end, can the little island with the big faith survive?

Taking Tangier’s pulse for 31 years in all weather, including storms so fierce that his patients sometimes don’t dare leave their homes to keep their appointments, is Dr. David Nichols. A helicopter pilot and a family physician inspired by his faith to provide medical care as a personal mission, Nichols flew over from the Virginia mainland on more than 1,600 Thursdays in his weekly rounds. For that effort, Nichols was honored on Tangier Sunday by a national health-care firm as Country Doctor of the Decade. But, more about that remarkable event in a moment.

Nichols is an example of many strong shoulders keeping Tangier Island afloat, often from locations far from the island itself.

Tangier’s community is notorious for throwing up barricades to newcomers over the centuries. Some news coverage of the island early in the 20th century makes it seem almost like a hostile camp. However, the truth is that these families work so hard and demand such strenuous sacrifices from themselves that trying to step into their culture is not a casual matter. These are people whose lives revolve around feats of endurance and professional commitment that would wither most mainlanders. Nichols won them over by proving he was tougher in his sacrificial commitment to Tangier than even some of the young watermen now migrating off the island. But, the rest of that Nichols story in a moment.

Tangier residents always seem to demand the first and greatest sacrifices from themselves, an echo of what we heard on this 9,000-mile journey from Peace Corps veterans we met in New Mexico, from Vietnamese-American shrimpers in New Orleans and from a traditional Ojibwe teacher in the northern woods of Minnesota. Talk about core values? Hard work on behalf of a community is bedrock Americana.

TANGIER ISLAND, Virginia. History teacher, waterman and musician Duane Crockett practices on the electric piano at the local United Methodist church.Among the Tangier watermen, a prime example is Duane Crockett, who left the island long enough to earn a college degree in history and a teaching certificate. Then, he turned down higher-paying jobs elsewhere to return to Tangier’s combined K-12 school. Some grades have as few as two students, but Crockett is the kind of history teacher any kid in America would love to have.

He actually tears up in class when teaching about the founding of our country. The importance of his subject matter flows out of him in a rich, resonant, Southern-Cornish drawl that reveals he’s as much of a musician as he is a teacher. In his spare time, Crockett still works on the water helping other crab fishermen, sorting softshells in crab shacks and, at church, playing organ and leading various congregational groups.

Last week, Crockett was bursting with enthusiasm that school officials are inviting him to help develop a curriculum for teaching Tangier Island history as a fresh window into U.S. history. “My mind is turning with all the ideas for this kind of class,” he said. “We can start with the earliest American history because it was Jamestown’s John Smith who first claimed Tangier in 1608 and, of course, Tangier played a major role in the War of 1812. This is going to be great.”

But just calculating the long list of things Crockett accomplishes in a single week is exhausting. Somehow, he manages all those things with a broad grin on his bearded face.

TANGIER ISLAND, Virginia. Dedication of the new clinic. Cutting the ribbon are white-haired Dr. David Nichols and dark-haired Jimmie Carter.“This is why it’s worth all the years of work and all the fund-raising to build a new clinic here,” said Jimmie Carter, head of the new Tangier Island Health Foundation that just dedicated the gleaming David B. Nichols Health Center. “Millions love to visit Colonial Williamsburg to see the old buildings, but here on Tangier we’ve got a living community of real people who represent the direct DNA from our country’s colonial roots.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell flew over with his staff to help the island’s residents dedicate their new clinic and said much the same thing, calling Tangier “a marvelous little paradise” that all Americans must help to preserve.

Standing beside McDonnell, Carter and Nichols was Physician’s Assistant E. Inez Pruitt, the chief on-site medical professional at the new clinic. She began working as a filing clerk for Nichols in the 1980s, a mother raising two children and picking up a little extra income working in Nichols’ cramped and barely equipped clinic. When Nichols encouraged her to get further medical training, Pruitt had to start by earning a belated high school diploma. Eventually, juggling her roles as a Tangier homemaker and clinic employee, she decided to go for certification as a Physician’s Assistant. That meant six years of waking up before dawn each morning, caring for her family, then taking an hour-long boat ride to the mainland, driving to the University of Maryland, then making the return trip, preparing dinner and doing her homework.

Tears welling up in her eyes, Pruitt told her story at the clinic dedication to help spur on her neighbors to greater service. “Dr. Nichols said I had to do it for Tangier and I also had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in me that strengthened me,” she said. It’s hard to talk about anything of real meaning on the island without touching on the faith that motivates people to live this way.

An official from StaffCare, the Texas-based healthcare company that manages the Country Doctor of the Year awards, rose to praise Nichols. He had won the award that often results in national media coverage back in 2006, but the completion of this $1.4-million clinic through Nichols’ tireless work earned him a new honor: Country Doctor of the Decade.

At last, Nichols himself rose to the podium near a wide blue ribbon strung around the clinic for the grand opening. He moved slowly, because he has been diagnosed with rapidly advancing terminal cancer. The country doctor who worked with Jimmie Carter for five years to assemble federal, state and local funds to bundle with gifts from hundreds of donors now is retiring to live out his final months with family and friends. He’ll never care for patients on weekly visits again. Pruitt will care for the island population under the supervision and regular visits by a new team of doctors Nichols has lined up on the mainland.

Nichols grinned at the big crowd cheering and applauding his arrival at the podium. “We have so many people on our island today, I wonder if it can hold us all up,” he said. Islanders laughed.

He talked very little about himself. Mostly, he wanted to praise Pruitt as an example of the best in American life. To drive home his point, he said, “Without her commitment as a healthcare provider, some in this crowd would not be here today.”

After that, he briefly mentioned his terminal condition, then said, “I won’t be with you much longer in body, but I will be looking in on you.”

That’ll be easy, he said, because: “Remember on Tangier, you are a little closer to heaven.”

(Today’s photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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