08 November 2010

Technology a Blessing, a Curse for remote Island

Associated Press

Muggs Bass doesn't own a computer. She's pretty much dead set against e-mail. Anyone who calls her home on Michigan's remote Beaver Island should be prepared for a busy signal, if she's on her land-line phone. She has no cell.

"When you don't have it, you don't miss it. That's what I say," says the spunky 70-year-old grandmother, who's as comfortable telling jokes at the local pub as she is attending Mass each morning.

Technology isn't really her thing. So, it's a small miracle when Bass drives, once a month, to her island's rural health center to sit down in front of a wide-screen television. There, she and a handful of other islanders connect by video conference with a similar group in Charlevoix, Mich., a two-hour ferry ride to the south and east.

They chat. They laugh. They cry together.

All of them have, or have had, cancer, Bass included. Hers started with a lump in her breast and has since metastasized to her bones, making her cancer treatable, but incurable, her doctors tell her.

Her own grandmother died of the same disease and went off the island for occasional treatments, as Bass does every few weeks. But that grandmother could hardly have imagined a day when islanders talked openly about their cancer, face-to-face with people in a support group miles away.

It's just one of many ways technology is making this rugged place less remote than it once was and, some would say, more livable for more people.

It also gives islanders hope for new jobs that could attract residents to this island in northern Lake Michigan where the year-round population is about 650 people, give or take a few dozen.

"In the last few years, technology has sprung," says Joe Moore, a retired teacher who's known as one of the geeks on the island who helps keep computers running.

Not that the change has come quickly, or that technology always works perfectly.

That's just how it is on an island where a popular bumper sticker reads "Slow Down! This Ain't The Mainland." It's aimed at anyone who's in too big a hurry, including lead-footed tourists who kick up dust on the many dirt roads or who panic when cell phone service drops.

That's life on wired - or at least, semi-wired - Beaver Island.


So, where is Beaver Island, anyway?

Some Michiganders would show you by holding up their right hands, palms up, and pointing just above the tip of their ring fingers - in other words, just off the far northwest tip of the state's lower peninsula. But that's if even THEY know where it is.

While Michigan's Mackinac Island is well known, Beaver Island - much of its 54 square miles covered in lush hardwood forests, sand dunes or pristine inland lakes - is not.

That's partly because it is more difficult to get to, especially in the off season. Ferry service runs from Charlevoix, from April through mid-December. Quick flights in small propeller planes are available year-round, weather permitting. In winter, it's not unusual for islanders to be physically cut off from the mainland, unless an emergency sends the U.S. Coast Guard to their rescue.

So when high-speed Internet service became available to most of the island last spring, this was more than just a convenience. For many, it was a godsend - even if having the service simply meant being able to shop online for just about anything, to play an online game or to watch a newly released movie. For others, it meant being able to stay on the island longer because they had a more reliable connection to do work.

Either way, the outside world was even more readily available, at least virtually.

Schoolchildren on the island were ahead of this curve: The main public school knew how valuable it would be for them to be technologically savvy, especially when students headed to college. In the last decade, those students have been encouraged to take language and advanced-placement classes online. Some in high school also take college courses. They learn how to download and evaluate statistics using palmtop computers.

Connie Boyle, a teacher at the school, helped implement the technology program. She had a vested interest in it, partly because she and her husband decided to raise their daughter on the island after moving here from Chicago 25 years ago.

"We were worried - 'How do you bring up a kid on very tiny Beaver Island?'" Boyle says. An answer came when their daughter, now a freshman at Michigan State University, called recently about her computer class.

"Mom, I don't get it," she said. "I'm helping everybody here. We did all this in high school."


Today's state-of-the-art Beaver Island school is quite different from the one Muggs Bass attended. For her, books were the only real window to the mainland, especially in elementary school.

Like many who settled on Beaver Island, her great-grandparents and a grandmother had come from Ireland, to farm, fish and find a better life. Her own father was a dairy farmer. Born Mary Margaret but called "Muggs" as long as she can remember, Bass went to a small school across the field from the family farmhouse.

Until her school combined with another in the island's main town, St. James, she didn't even know some of her own cousins on the island. Other than a trip to the doctor when she was a young child, she didn't go to the mainland of Michigan - "across," as the islanders like to say - until she visited an aunt in Detroit when she was 12 years old.

"It was big and noisy," she recalls.

She didn't mind that her family didn't have a television until she was a teenager. For a long time, the closest thing she had to a technological device was the family radio, which she sat beside with her father to listen to boxing matches.

Her world was small in those days. That's how she liked it.

But after she graduated from high school, she left the island to find work and she ended up living in other parts of Michigan and then Illinois, where she met her husband. They then moved to northern Indiana, where they raised their son and his children from a previous marriage. Always, she longed to return to the island one day.


It's not the kind of life that appeals to just anyone.

Donna Kubic, a registered nurse who heads the island's rural health center, gets that. She tells the story of a young woman who came to the island to apply for a job at the health center. The woman had planned to stay for a week, but left after staying just one night in a lakeside cottage.

It was too dark out there with no street lights, she told Kubic. Too solitary.

This is, indeed, a place where one doesn't take modern convenience for granted. There is one grocery store, a couple of gas stations, a handful of restaurants and bars but no movie theater. There is no full-time doctor on the island, though two visit from the mainland twice a month. Critical patients are airlifted off the island, by the Coast Guard if weather shuts down other options.

As recently as two years ago, if someone needed an X-ray, the films had to be flown to the Charlevoix hospital so a radiologist there could read them. Depending on weather, it could take days.

Kubic knew there was a better way. She persuaded the hospital to help her apply for a grant that recently helped her purchase digital X-ray equipment for the health center. Now images can be transmitted in a matter of minutes.

Next came video conferencing, connecting the island's nurse practitioner and physician's assistant to the mainland hospital's emergency room. It's the same technology that allows Bass and the other islanders to take part in the "Circle of Strength" cancer support group.

"Without it, we'd be out here, in the lake, without a lot of support," Kubic says. Eventually, she hopes that primary care doctors and specialists - even mental health care providers - will be more willing to offer their services to islanders (though so far, she says, they've been reluctant).

"I think it's just education, saying the technology is there, getting the docs used to it," she says.


When Muggs Bass moved back to the island 12 years ago, she had no idea that she'd soon be dealing with a serious health issue.

A year after she'd been there, she traveled to the mainland for her annual mammogram, which revealed cancerous tissue. She had surgery to remove a breast.

"Then I went along fine for 10 years," she says, until she got a cough she couldn't shake. One morning, she got up and said to her husband, "I need to go across, to the doctor."

Her lung was filling with fluid. The cancer had spread to her bones.

So for the past 18 months, she has traveled to the mainland every six weeks for an infusion of a drug that keeps her bones from fracturing, and also takes a daily pill to slow the cancer's growth. The goal is to extend her life as much as possible.

"I'm going to hold to this until I reach something else," Bass recently told her support group. "And then I'll have to make another decision."

The group in Charlevoix includes an 80-year-old woman with lung and colon cancer, as well as younger mothers who've survived breast cancer and those who are in the thick of the battle. They talk about infections and drainage tubes, mammograms and mastectomies. They somehow manage to find humor in topics such as constipation.

One of the moms, introduced to the Beaver Island group through video conference, thanked Bass for sending her a card and a prayer.

"I read it every day," the woman, who has 11- and 16-year-old children, told Bass. "I'm in it for the long term fight. I'm prayin' hard, too."

"That's what you do," Bass said, as she grabbed a tissue to dab her eyes.

Diane Gorkiewicz, who began the Charlevoix "Circle of Strength" six years ago, marvels at the intimacy that has developed so quickly between her group and the islanders.

"The only thing you're missing are all the hugs and stuff," Gorkiewicz told the islanders during a recent video conference.

"And the food," Bass said, teasing the Charlevoix group that they need to share the treats they bring to their meetings.


Joe and Phyllis Moore understand the dynamic.

Earlier this year, the longtime islanders were able to "attend" their youngest granddaughter's first birthday party via Skype. Guests at the party in Washington state sat at a computer to introduce themselves. The Moores saw the cake. They gave real-time wishes to the birthday girl.

"Just thinking about it, it almost brings tears to my eyes," Joe Moore says.

It's not ideal, but the best they can do - better than they could've hoped for, really. The hard reality is that the cost of getting off the island can be prohibitive.

Most islanders have to "wear many hats" just to get by, Moore says. In addition to his computer work, he's one of the island medics and also runs a local website that provides video footage of township meetings, as well as the school's soccer and volleyball games.

Phyllis Moore is now the assistant librarian, but when she moved back to the island after college, she and Joe ran a vacation lodge while he did his student teaching.

"Like most graduates, I was going to get off this rock and never look back," says Phyllis Moore, now 62. "And look where I am now."

Many young people who live here say technology - social networking and their cell phones included - make life on the island better for them, too. But in the end, they face the same dilemma as everyone else: How do you make a living here? And what if there's really no place for the kind of work you want to do?

Brontae Cole, a 17-year-old high school senior, will be heading to college next year and wants to become a homicide detective.

"There's one cop here, two in the summer if we get lucky," Cole says. She grins. "And not a lot of dead people."

Jewell Gillespie-Cushman, a 14-year-old freshman, also wonders where he'll land. His late grandfather, an island icon for whom he was named, was born on Beaver Island and lived here his entire life. Gillespie-Cushman isn't sure he could do the same, even with more contact with the outside world than his grandpa had.

"I'm still debating whether to stay here, or move over there," he says.


Like Muggs Bass, though, a growing number of people want to find a way ONTO Beaver Island - many of them among the thousands who visit each summer and would like to make it home. For many of them, technology is the key.

Jeff Stone and his wife, Sarah Rohner, were able to start spending more time on the island in 2006, when a satellite-based service began offering an Internet connection that was about two-thirds as fast as the newest service, and much faster than the sluggish dial-up service that had been the only option.

The satellite option enabled Stone to quit his real estate job in the Chicago area to start a website design business that he and his wife run from the island much of the year, though not without some initial glitches.

He recalls how snow from a huge storm covered their satellite dish, cutting off their Internet service just as they were about to launch their site.

"We ended up going out in the back yard and throwing snow balls at the dish," he says. That knocked off enough snow to get the Internet working, and they were back in business. But it's not always that easy, or quick.

Laurel Vietzen, a college professor, also from the Chicago area, who now spends several months a year on the island, remembers a violent summer thunderstorm two years ago that left much of the island without Internet and phones. "We had a daughter at the University of Iowa and we were hearing about terrible flooding in Iowa City," she says. "It was three days before we could reach her!"

Now that Internet service on the island is more reliable, many islanders say cell phone service is the big hurdle. One mobile provider's service works well here, though only on the upper third of the island - and outages happen more frequently than most would like.

Even those who reap the benefits of technology feel torn, though. They worry that it infringes on one of the very things they love about the island - its inherent, blissful peacefulness.

Technology is, at once, their blessing and their curse.

On a summer night, it's not unusual to see more than a dozen people sitting outside the library's memorial garden, on picnic tables and in their cars, tapping into the free wireless that's left on 24 hours a day.

At the same time, islanders and summer residents alike regularly complain about all the people who now walk around the main streets of St. James, staring at a smart phone screen or iPad instead of their beautiful surroundings.

"The technology is wonderful, but ... ," Phyllis Moore says. She raises her eyebrows, noting how, on a nice day, she isn't opposed to kicking kids out of the library after they reach their 30-minute time limit on the computers there.

Meanwhile, it used to be the joke that, by St. Patrick's Day, anyone who lived here year round couldn't stand the sight of anyone else. In many ways, communicating with the outside world helps with that, but not always.

"I don't think it's eliminated cabin fever or getting at each other's throats," Joe Moore says, chuckling. "Sometimes, I think it makes it worse because they can communicate more and get on each others' nerves even more."


Muggs Bass knows about the squabbles and the way a rumor can take on a life of its own, computer or no computer. She wasn't too happy, for instance, when she heard that some islanders were calling her cancer "inoperable." She didn't like the sound of it - wished they'd just ask her directly.

But that was nothing, she says, compared with the support she's gotten from her tiny island community.

"We joke. We kid. We take care of each other," she says. "I can't imagine living anyplace else."

When she got her latest diagnosis, islanders organized a "50/50 raffle" for her, where the winner is supposed to take half the donations. Instead, the winner gave his portion to Bass, a common outcome on Beaver Island. All up, she received nearly $9,000 to help with flights to the mainland and other expenses related to her illness.

"You talk about emotional," Bass says, tearing up again.

She recalls sitting down after that to pray and, as she might say, have a chat with God.

"I thanked Him, and thanked Him, and thanked Him. I was so grateful that I was able to come back and live here, and for holding me up at this time in my life," she says.

The support group and her new friends on the mainland are part of that.

For her, technology - at least her little slice of it - has allowed the best of both worlds.

No comments:

Post a Comment