Community and Giving

Five years later Tangier Island still feels presence of doctor

December 22, 2015

BY BILL LOHMANN Richmond Times-Dispatch

 TANGIER - As I walked onto the front porch of the David B. Nichols Health Center, it amazed me to think it had been five years since the place opened — five years since Tangier gained a remarkable, state-of-the-art medical facility and five years since it lost the man whose name is on the sign.
For this small island in the Chesapeake Bay, 2010 was a year that was, at once, heartwarming and heartbreaking, but the love that went into the building of the center endures, as does the long-term medical care for Tangier that Dr. David B. Nichols intended when he helped spearhead the project.
“David would be proud,” said his friend Jimmie Carter, who led the fundraising effort to build the health center and is chairman of the Tangier Island Health Foundation, a nonprofit that owns and maintains the facility. The medical side of things is overseen by Riverside Medical Group, which acquired Nichols’ practice before his death and continues to send physicians from the mainland to Tangier every Thursday, just as Nichols did.
“Riverside continues to honor David’s wishes, and hats off to them for what they’re doing.”
He added, “Inez is really the rock. She’s the 24/7 medical provider.”
“Inez” is Inez Pruitt, a physician assistant and a Nichols protégé who Nichols always liked to say was the island’s first home-grown, licensed medical care provider in Tangier’s history. She grew up on the island, never lived anywhere else (except when she temporarily lived away while earning her degree) and has become the face of health care on the island every day. Not bad for a high school dropout who served as something of an apprentice under Nichols before going away for formal schooling for which, she always says, she was well-prepared.
“Can’t believe it’s been five years,” Pruitt said when we spoke during my visit to Tangier the other week to gather material for a separate story. “Still miss him greatly. He was such a teacher.”
Yet, Pruitt said of Nichols, she still feels his presence.
“Sometimes when I’ve got a difficult case, it’s almost like I hear him whispering in my ear,” she said.
Nichols was the Northern Neck physician who visited Tangier as a young man and was intrigued by the remote island, taking note that it had no resident physician. After opening his practice in White Stone and acquiring his pilot’s license in the late 1970s, he began flying over to Tangier on his day off each week to offer medical care.
At first, Tangier served as an opportunity for Nichols to do good, but also as a worthy excuse to fly his single-engine plane each week. Eventually, though, the island became part of his regular medical practice — other physicians in his practice would fly to Tangier on the Thursdays he didn’t — and gained a disproportionate grip on his heart.
Over time, the island’s cramped medical building became rundown and beyond repair with a leaky roof and bad plumbing among its more noteworthy flaws. Carter persuaded Nichols they could raise money to construct a new medical center, and they set about gathering support around Virginia. Weeks before the facility was scheduled to open in 2010, Nichols learned the cancer he hoped he had beaten several years earlier had returned, and the prognosis was not good.
The dedication was held on the last Sunday in August, on one of the most sweltering days imaginable. Several people among the throng of islanders and dignitaries wilted in the heat. Four months later, Nichols was gone. A week later, at his request, his ashes were buried on the island, beneath a marker in a cemetery next to the health center: a fitting final resting place for a Canadian-born doctor who never lived on the island but grew to love it and its people beyond measure.
Nichols never got the chance to practice medicine in the beautiful new health center he helped to build, but his work continues nonetheless — through the facility itself and through Pruitt, whom he encouraged and mentored and prepared so she could provide a level of medical care Tangiermen could only have imagined.
Nichols’ son, Davy, is still directly involved with the foundation as facility manager for the health center and as pilot, ferrying medical staff from his father’s old Northern Neck practice, board members and other friends of Tangier to the island.
“Which sort of makes me the link to the mainland,” Davy Nichols said in an email. “But I also keep an eye on the building to make sure it would pass the ‘Dad’ test.”
The health center is a bright spot for an island that has weathered a loss of jobs, population and land and now faces what is being reported as a bleak future. The day after my visit earlier this month, a new study was published by the journal Scientific Reports that reinforces previous research and suggests the low-lying island, which has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850, might be uninhabitable within as few as 50 years because of rising seas and sinking land.
Many islanders believe the problem is erosion and are upset that a jetty project proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers aimed at protecting the island’s main channel and harbor is not yet underway. A seawall built in the 1980s protects the island’s aiRiverside Foundationield on the western side of the island.
Unless you live in a place facing the same sort of future, it’s a little hard to imagine.
“We’re not going to give up ... because this place is more than worth fighting for,” Pruitt said. “We don’t want Tangier to be a thing of the past.”
Meantime, life goes on.
Over the summer, Pruitt did something Nichols never did in all his years on Tangier: deliver a baby. Pruitt said she had put the mom-to-be in an ambulance headed for the island’s airport and a flight to a Maryland hospital — but the baby wouldn’t wait. The baby was delivered in the ambulance.
“The baby was fine, a beautiful baby girl,” Pruitt said. “It was very exciting.”
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