Guest Column: Since 1905, Sea Coast Mission tends the coast

First published in the MLA Newsletter, May, 2012

Rev. Scott Plantingt is the executive director of the Maine Sea COast Mission, headquartered in Bar Harbor. He began his duties as director in October, 2010, following the retirement of the Rev. Gary Delong. Photo courtesy of the Sea Coast Mission.

It’s 4:30 a.m. on a dark November morning.  The Sunbeam V, the boat of the Maine Sea Coast Mission, sits on her keel at low tide in the Matinicus harbor.  The door to the salon opens and closes as fishermen on their way to their boats come aboard the Sunbeam where they are greeted by nurse Sharon Daley. The talk is quiet and good-natured as Sharon makes her way around the salon giving flu shots, taking blood pressures and drawing cholesterol blood samples.  Sharon knows each of the fishermen by name and asks how they are doing.  When she is done, each man breaks their ‘fast’ with coffee and ship steward Pat Dutille’s freshly baked coffee cake.  By 5:00 am the salon is empty.  “Lobstermen are not going to take a day off from hauling to take care of a medical problem,” says Sharon, “and our services allow them to see someone quickly and have things like blood pressure checks and lab draws without leaving the island.”

The Sunbeam’s work is just one part of the efforts of the Maine Sea Coast Mission, based in Bar Harbor. The Mission provides spiritual, health and youth development programs in Downeast Maine and on Maine’s  islands. Rooted in a history of non-denominational service, the Mission offers hope, encouragement and help to strengthen individuals, families and communities. The Maine Sea Coast Mission was founded in 1905 by two brothers who were also pastors, Angus and Alexander MacDonald. They took the first Mission boat, a sloop called Hope, to isolated island communities providing spiritual support where there were no churches, bringing books, learning opportunities, and always surprises for Christmas. In its early years the Mission placed nurses and teachers on the islands it served.  Over the years doctors, dentists, nutritionists and other health care providers have been carried by the Sunbeam to help isolated island communities.  “Whatever is needed” are the words the crew of the Sunbeam live by.

The Mission has expanded its work over the past 107 years, now offering opportunities such as after-school and summer programs for youth in Washington County; emergency financial assistance; food pantries; educational scholarships; the Sunbeam Island Health Services; and a thrift shop.

All year long, as long as the wind is blowing less than a gale, the Sunbeam makes its regular island rounds.  Leaving homeport in Northeast Harbor, at the break of day, the first stop on the schedule is a day at Frenchboro.

As soon as the Sunbeam ties up at the ferry terminal, islanders come on board for coffee and a game of cribbage, fishermen talk with the crew, while others have a medical check with Sharon, or have an appointment with their mainland physician via the boat’s state-of-the-art  telemedicine system.  Telemedicine is technology which links a patient and medical provider face-to-face through a broadband Internet connection. Telemedicine is a tool which helps patients be seen without going off-island, which for a family is expensive, in some cases requiring overnight accommodations.  The range of services provided by telemedicine include primary care visits, drug and alcohol counseling, education and specialist care.

One islander commented about telemedicine, “When I am in the telemedicine room on the Sunbeam no one knows what I am there for.  I can visit with my doctor while having a cup of coffee and visiting with my friends and not go off the island.  I don’t put off appointments like I used to.” Telemedicine has improved the health of islanders and given them much greater access to all kinds of medical care.

At noon, the school children and their teachers come down to the boat for lunch.  The children are very comfortable on the Sunbeam and very often the steward will hold a cooking class with them.  Sea Coast Mission pastor Rob Benson, who provides pastoral care for six island communities, spends the afternoon making house calls visiting shut-ins or planning an upcoming youth retreat.

At the end of a full day, the Sunbeam sails to Isle au Haut, arriving in time to welcome neighbors on board for dinner. Early the next morning, the mail boat ties up next to the Sunbeam and everyone comes on the boat for a hearty breakfast.  When the mail boat sets off for Stonington, the telemedicine appointments begin.

Depending on the tide, the Sunbeam soon will set off to Matinicus where the same hospitality and help will be offered.  As Sharon explains, “We get to be a part of the community.  Our offer to help is usually well received.”

The Sunbeam functions as a coffee shop and restaurant, a community center, doctor’s office,  class room, chapel and funeral parlor.  One islander sums up the importance of the Sunbeam this way:  “I feel better just knowing the Sunbeam is in the harbor.”

Because the boat can’t get to all the outer islands on a regular basis, a new program of the Sea Coast Mission is to work with island communities to establish land-based telemedicine facilities.  The same state-of-the-art telemedicine equipment available on the Sunbeam would be installed in land-based clinics.  Thus far the Mission has worked with Swan’s Island and Isleford to set up telemedicine clinics. These clinics are staffed by medical technicians trained to use the equipment. The same range of services is made available on the islands as on the Sunbeam.

“The Mission has been providing the same quality of service for over a century.  We are doing basically the same thing we did when the first Sunbeam brought a nurse out to an island.  The way we deliver services has changed, but we are still committed to establishing trusting relationships.  And that starts with a conversation over a cup of coffee,” said executive director Scott Planting.