Treating Tangier Island

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Dr. Copter

dr. david b. nichols tangier islandThe face of healthcare on Tangier changed with Dr. David B. Nichols, who visited Tangier on a family vacation with his parents and felt a connection to the place and the people. Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, he moved to Newport News for his Family Practice residency under the direction of the Medical College of Virginia at Riverside Hospital. He started his own family practice at White Stone, which he eventually joined with Riverside Health System.

Nichols flew his airplane, then later on, his helicopter, to Tangier every Thursday (his day off) to treat patients. He would circle the island to let everyone know he was there, which earned him the nickname “Dr. Copter.”

He visited the island once a week for more than 30 years, even though he was still treating residents in an old building with outdated equipment.

During one of his visits, Dr. Nichols brought along friend and real estate developer Jimmie Carter to have lunch. “He showed me the existing clinic, and on a spur of the moment I told him I would like to work with him,” Carter says. The two formed the Tangier Island Health Foundation in 2006 to raise funds to construct a new clinic.

Five years later, the foundation had raised $1.7 million, enough to build the clinic for Tangier’s residents, who’d began to form a bond with the doctor.

“I think there was just something about the people on the island that aligned with his sensibilities,” says Carter, who is president of the foundation. “They were honest, hardworking and in need of care.”

Inez, who considers Nichols her mentor, says the doctor became intertwined with the community. “People came to trust him so much,” she remarks. “He saved so many lives.”

In August 2010, the state-of-the-art and appropriately named David B. Nichols Health Center opened its doors, and residents attended a dedication ceremony with both gratitude and grief.

Just a few months before the clinic’s opening, Dr. Nichols learned that an eye cancer he had survived six years ago had spread to his liver and that it was terminal. When he broke the news to the islanders, he assured them that there would always be a doctor that would come to Tangier—because he had gotten assurance from Riverside.

“Dr. Nichols was extremely devoted to maintaining the clinic and care on Tangier Island,” says Dr. James Lesnick, senior vice president for Riverside Health System and medical director for Riverside Medical Group. “We at Riverside feel privileged to continue that legacy.”

Dr. Nichols died in December 2010, leaving behind an inspirational promise, as well as a protégé.

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