Journal of the San Juan Islands


Fight of a lifetime: allies await in battle against cancer

October 25, 2013 · Updated 9:04 AM

The recent opening of the Peace Island Medical Center cancer treatment center has revolutionized cancer treatment for county residents / Journal file photo

By Meredith M. Griffith

Special to the Journal

Living in San Juan County is a fabulous privilege and a gift that comes with unique challenges – mainly transportation. When islanders fall critically ill and need intensive medical care accessible only by boat, there’s a network of support to ease the burden.

“If you gotta be sick, this is the place to be sick,” laughs San Juan resident and cancer patient Cathy Cavanaugh, citing enormous community support in the islands. “It’s huge when you’ve got positive support. They’ve got statistics: your recovery rate is better, your cure rate is better. I can certainly understand that.”

San Juan-based services

The recent opening of the Peace Island Medical Center (http://www.peacehealth.org/peace-island/services/cancer-center/Pages/Default.aspx) cancer treatment center has revolutionized cancer treatment for county residents, especially San Juan residents. The center offers oncologists, chemotherapy treatments, care for central lines, lab work, nutrition support and pharmacy services. Call the cancer center at 378-1739.

“It’s very patient-centered,” said Cavanaugh, who is receiving care there. “I’ve felt very well taken care of.”

Peace Island’s Bridge Assistance program offers one-time write-offs of up to 100 percent of expenses incurred by uninsured or under insured patients in need, but representatives expect the need to drop drastically with the advent of Obamacare in 2014.

Peace Island can arrange free taxi rides for patients between the ferry and the hospital through the Round Towner taxi service.

Oncology nurse Dawn Alger functions as a single point of contact for patients trying to navigate a sometimes bewildering schedule of appointments, lab tests and diagnostic scans.

“I’m kind of their GPS system,” said Alger, who follows up with patients at home. “They can contact me for everything.”

For treatments needed outside Peace Island, the Soroptimists International of Friday Harbor coordinate a Cancer Treatment Transportation Project (http://www.sifri.org/community-projects/cancer-treatment-transportation-project-2/), providing ferry tickets and transportation by car to medical appointments. They also coordinate with the San Juan Eagles to provide flights when needed. For more information, contact Julie Hanks at (360) 317-5086 or email soroptimistferrytickets@gmail.com.

San Juan Eagles pilot and coordinator Vicky Thalacker started a nonprofit program to fly cancer patients in 2001 with the support of 16 other pilots. The Eagles have provided an average of 200 flights annually to Skagit, Anacortes and Bellingham, and can also arrange free rental vehicles from the Skagit airport. Donations defray the cost of fuel. For more information, contact Vicky Thalacker at 378-4578.

Orcas-based services

Orcas Island Mercy Flights (376-3201 or 317-4086) has about nine pilots ready and willing to fly cancer patients to medical appointments, reducing hours-long ferry and vehicle treks to just minutes.

“Technically we have a 25-mile radius [for flights],” said coordinator Audrey Wells. “It gets bent.” While Seattle is a bit out of range, pilots fly patients to radiation and chemo treatments in Friday Harbor, Bellingham, Mt. Vernon and Anacortes. Fuel costs for each flight run from $35 to $50, and half can be reimbursed to the pilot from a fuel fund created by donations.

There is no financial information required to participate in the program. Wells said the Friday Harbor program has also pitched in to fly Orcas residents in the past.

“If any pilot is interested in becoming a Mercy Pilot, it would be one of the most rewarding things they can do,” said Wells.

The Orcas Cancer Support Group led by Bogdan and Carol Kulminski meets on the second Thursday of each month in the fireside room of Orcas Island Community Church from 5 to 6 p.m.

“Everybody’s welcome,” says Carol, including caretakers and family members of cancer patients. She said attendees often linger to continue forging connections long after the official meeting has ended. Call 376-4198.

Lahari (http://laharionorcas.org) supports in-home hospice care through grants. Recipients often include cancer patients. For information, call 1-888-685-1475.

Lahari also funds free caregiver classes taught every quarter by Sally Coffin, Lahari board secretary.

“Our mission is to assist the aging population to live safely in their homes for as long as they want to,” said Coffin.

While Hearts and Hands is not cancer-specific, its trained volunteers provide practical and emotional support for 1-2 hours per week to assist isolated, ill, frail, elderly or disabled adults to maintain independence and improve their quality of life. The Orcas Senior Center also provides some respite care, mobility equipment and other forms of assistance.

Lopez-based services

Lopez Island Hospice and Home Support (http://www.lihhs.org/) is an all-volunteer organization offering free services including grief support and a caregiver support group, as well as medical equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers and shower benches available for loan. For information, call 468-4446 or email admin@lihhs.org.

San Juan County Health and Community Services does not currently have funding for any specific cancer support services, but sometimes patients under 18 can be helped by the county’s Children with Special Health Care Needs program managed by Susan Leff. The program mainly helps families to access needed care and with care coordination, said Leff. Call 378-4474.

Residents of smaller islands are encouraged to contact the organizations listed above for assistance. For example, we were unable to discover any support systems based specifically on Shaw, but many services offered by the larger islands are accessible by Shaw residents as well. Many of the organizations work together to help county residents receive the help they need.

All of the nonprofits listed above rely on fundraisers and donations to continue providing these services to cancer patients, and donations are always welcome.


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