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A Kodiak fisherman was in the headlines last month, when he pitched a tent in front of Providence Alaska Medical Center.
Marvin Abbott camped out at the Anchorage hospital for more than a month in protest of Providence’s COVID-19 policies, which restricts patient visits as a safety precaution.
His daughter, Rachelle, was medevaced from Kodiak to Providence, after a severe asthma attack on Sept. 6 that left her in an induced coma.
Rachelle Abbott has since been moved to the Alaska Native Medical Center, where she had been on the waiting list. There are now plans to move her again, into long-term care. Her family says recent tests show she’s had extensive brain damage.
The family says they’ve been allowed one visit, while an occupational therapist worked with Rachelle.
Back when Abbott first set out his cot near the edge of the street in front of Providence, the leaves were green. Soon he had a tent, given to him by someone who heard his story on the news. Another man, Abbott describes as a guy with “a big truck and a big heart,” dropped off a big box, and said, “Got you guys a heater, so you could huddle around it and keep warm.”
Abbott does not know the man’s name but said he also left him about a dozen bottles of propane.
Since then, the leaves have turned to gold and scattered. And all the while, Abbott’s daughter, Rachelle, remained in a coma. During that time, the hospital allowed him to visit her three times. But most days he sat on the curb and looked up at her window.
“It makes it easier, sitting here for me, being close to her,” Abbott said, as he pointed towards his daughter’s room above the hospital’s emergency room. “I think I should be up in the room next to her, holding her hand.”
Abbott has had more opportunities to visit than most families with loved ones at Providence. Few have been allowed to visit, as part of the hospital’s strict policy to prevent the spread of the virus.
So how did Abbott get to see his daughter? The hospital says the visits had nothing to do with his protest, but were allowed because doctors needed to consult him about his daughter’s care.
Dr. Michael Bernstein, Providence’s chief medical officer says a team of frontline caregivers and administrators meet regularly to review requests from families, as well as visitation guidelines. He says the hospital had hoped to relax its policies, but with coronavirus on the upswing, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.
“It’s all a matter of weighing the risks, versus the potential benefits,” Bernstein said. “And they’re tough decisions to make. Believe me.”
Dr. Bernstein says there’s a lot at stake.There has already been one close call, in which a visitor to the hospital hid symptoms of COVID-19. Fortunately, he said, there were no consequences.
“We’re also a major trauma center. We’re the largest hospital in the state. If we have an outbreak amongst our staff, as has happened in other places, and in one of our skilled nursing facilities, it can devastate our ability to provide any type of care to the community,” Bernstein said.
But for families with patients, the hospital’s policy has taken a heavy toll.
Marvin Abbott’s mother, Lydia Olsen, followed her son from Kodiak to Anchorage. Although she stayed with a family friend, she went to his camp every day in support.
When Abbott first told her about his plan to camp out, she had her doubts.
“He said, ‘Mom, I got to go. I got to do something,’” Olsen said. “So, he had a sign made with a picture of her in ICU and it said, ‘Let me see her.’”
When Abbott finally got to see his daughter, his mother was able to watch and listen to the visit on her cell phone.
“He just talked the whole hour to her,” Olsen said, “reminded her of what a strong person she is.”
Marvin Abbott says he constantly told his daughter how proud he was of her – and all that she had overcome.
“She got pregnant when she was in high school, and got a kid,” he said. “She graduated at the age of 20. She never gave up. She’s always fought to the end.”
Abbott says Rachelle had a successful summer this year working on a fishing boat — and at 26, she had finally turned her life around. In his curbside conversations, he told how her much she has to live for and how much her nine-year-old daughter, Izzie, needs her mom.
“I fully believe that it would be helpful for Izzie and Papa to get to see Rachelle,” said Olsen. “I think their presence and their voices can do things that the doctors can’t do for them.”
People dropped by Abbott’s tent every day to tell him they thought it was wrong for the hospital to keep him from his daughter.
Bailey Klappenbach was one of those. She often bicycled by his tent on her way to an art class at the University of Alaska Anchorage. One day she stopped to drop off a note for the family.
“I just hope you’re able to keep high spirits,” said Klappenbach, who also explained that her mother had been hospitalized before the pandemic, and there were times her family wasn’t allowed to visit.
“I just remember that feeling of just wanting to see her so bad and not being able to,” Klappenbach told Abbott.
Others joined Abbott in front of Providence, carrying signs to protest its policies, including those who had also been denied a chance to visit family.
Abbott said one of the moments he knew for sure he was doing the right thing was when Bill Pagaran, a Tlingit drummer, came to sing for him. Pagaran handed Abbott a drumstick, so that he could pound out the beat with him.
Pagaran also encouraged him to pray out loud, which Abbott said was the best advice he’d received so far.
Lydia Olsen says the family is filled with gratitude.
“The outpouring of love and support and encouragement has absolutely been phenomenal. He knows he’s not alone,” Abbott’s mother said. “It became a thing about not only doing it for himself but doing it for other people.”
The news that space had opened up for Rachelle Abbott at ANMC came just as the early morning frost began to dust the lawn in front of Providence.
It was then that Abbott finally rolled up his tent and moved into an old RV, loaned to him by a man who heard him on talk radio. For now, his winter job as a maintenance man is on hold, but he remains as determined as ever to stay close to his daughter.