Treating Tangier Island

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dr. david kemp tangier islandJust a touch of sunshine twinkles over the Chesapeake Bay on a brisk October morning as Dr. David Kemp boards Sharon Kay III, a former crabbing boat that’s now used for tours heading to Tangier Island. Dressed in a fleece jacket and a spiffy Halloween bowtie, he steps on board, carrying his black medical bag in one hand and a small cooler in the other (to bring back a crab—two if he’s lucky). His office manager, Kimberly Clark, slips a bag of M&Ms into her purse before climbing on the boat.

Dr. Kemp, a Riverside physician, drives nearly 40 miles from his Gloucester home to Smith Point Marina in Reedsville, then makes the hour-and-a-half boat ride to Tangier. He’s been traveling to the island twice a month for five years and typically doesn’t return home until 8:30 in the evening—not an easy journey for the 73-year-old physician, but he doesn’t complain. “I’m retired Navy; I like this sort of stuff,” he says.

Most importantly, he’s carrying on a mission to provide regular healthcare to the people of Tangier—a mission that was started more than 30 years ago.

Life on the Island

Boats on Tangier Island Virginia

Tangier, as anyone who’s visited can testify, is a modest town, and visiting is like traveling back in time. The 1.2-square-mile island is surrounded by collapsing crab shanties and boats with names like Betty Jane and Joyce Marie. A once-thriving community of watermen, Tangier is now losing 7–9 acres per year, due to rising sea levels and erosion. It’s been said that in 100 years, all that may be left of the island is the town’s water tower, which flaunts the image of a big, red crab.

The population, like the land mass, is also dwindling as young people leave for college and don’t return. Most of the island’s approximate 500 residents are friends or relatives (many with the surname Parks, Pruitt or Crockett). Everyone knows everyone, and the islanders speak in a unique English Restoration-era dialect, though some accents are stronger than others.

The only cars on the island are used for transporting goods; residents travel by bicycle or golf cart. Businesses include an airport, some restaurants (most only open during summer), a couple bed-and-breakfasts, a post office, a fire department, a history museum, a school where grades K–12 attend in the same building, a small grocery store and a brand new, 1.4 million-dollar medical clinic.

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