Helping islanders in need | Guest column

by San Olson, Lopez Island.

As a retiree in the islands, the concept of aging in place had great appeal and after more than twenty years of successfully enjoying the benefits of that expectation, the alternative reality appeared. Although that alternative reality, where a serious health condition could suddenly require frequent treatment on the mainland was a known possibility, I had yet to face that new reality with forethought.

When I received a diagnosis of cancer earlier this year, I needed to decide how I could navigate a 28-day treatment regimen requiring me to be in Bellingham every Monday through Friday. My options were circumscribed by the fact that I have a visual impairment that does not permit me to drive safely off-island. Thus, I would either spend days in a motel, find drivers to take me each day (ferry dysfunction permitting), or find other transportation options. Transportation quickly became much more of a challenge than treatment itself.

Until my need, I had no knowledge that so many people and organizations were available to help islanders in similar circumstances. I was amazed at the variety of organizations and individuals who came forward to help me get to, from and around Bellingham.

I am so grateful to Angel Flight West and San Juan Eagles whose volunteer pilots flew me to Bellingham and personally drove me to treatment and back. Occasionally I had an Angel Flight assistant who drove me to Bellingham. And I’m also thankful to Bellingham Aviation Services who provided a no-cost vehicle for ground transportation. My friends and neighbors who drove me on long days, braving the inconsistent ferry schedule, even with my medical priority, deserve special recognition. Many of those travel days lasted 10 and 12 hours. When flights were difficult to acquire, I relied on San Juan Airlines to be my fail-safe option to be sure not to miss any treatments.

The combination of transportation modes allowed me to meet my treatment requirements without undue fatigue and because of many gracious islanders who provided cooked meals, I could forego my usual cooking duties and concentrate on resting for the next day.

Flying over the islands at 2,700 ft. of altitude was an unexpected benefit. Seeing our entire county spread out over the sea was spectacular. It was as if a giant handful of mismatched rocks and pebbles were tossed into the Salish Sea, just for decoration. My most vivid impression was that the islands seemed so small and the sea so comparatively immense I have sailed those waters and that is not the perspective one has from the water.

San Juan Islanders and others care about each other in times of need and find ways to help in difficult situations which can initially seem insurmountable. In my life experiences, I have found no other community so giving and willing to help as in our own special place in the Salish Sea. Thank you to all who made my journey through a fight with cancer possible and, hopefully, successful.