2018-04-07 / News

Island Reports Little Influenza, No Snowmobile Accidents This Winter

By Stephanie Fortino


During the winter, the Mackinac Island Medical Center is staffed by Dr. Gregory Hessler (from left), traveling nurses like Stephanie Turner of Lansing, clinic coordinator nurse Amy Goehler, and Tony Frazier in administration. Missing from photograph is Greg Main, who works in maintenance at the clinic. During the winter, the Mackinac Island Medical Center is staffed by Dr. Gregory Hessler (from left), traveling nurses like Stephanie Turner of Lansing, clinic coordinator nurse Amy Goehler, and Tony Frazier in administration. Missing from photograph is Greg Main, who works in maintenance at the clinic. With no snowmobile accidents or major medical incidents, the staff of the Mackinac Island Medical Center say they’ve had a relatively quiet winter. Caring for the community and its visitors is year-around physician Dr. Gregory Hessler, who has lived here since November 2016. Island residents, he said, are an especially resilient bunch and generally in very good health.

Dr. Hessler is joined by nurse Amy Goehler, who has worked on the Island for three years and lives here year-around. Since last October, she has served at the Mackinac Island Clinic coordinator, meaning she serves as the liaison to Mackinac Straits Health Systems in St. Ignace. She is in charge of most of the scheduling, coordinates the housing arrangements for visiting nurses and doctors in the apartments above the clinic, and orders supplies and medication. During her service here, Mrs. Goehler has worked in many capacities, including general nursing, laboratory, and radiology.

Mrs. Goehler, Dr. Hessler, and Tony Frazier, who works in administration, are the clinic’s three full-time employees, and a new full-time laboratory and radiology technician will start in May. Greg Main is also a fixture at the clinic, working part-time in maintenance.

During the winter, the clinic is also staffed by a crew of travel nurses who work for a week at a time. Working at the clinic Thursday, March 22, was Stephanie Turner of Lansing, who has worked as a travel nurse for nine years. She will continue coming to the Island until the end of July. The nurses sometimes are on call for four days straight during the winter but they get time off more frequently in the summer because the clinic is so much busier.

Overall, Dr. Hessler treats ongoing medical conditions like blood pressure, asthma, and diabetes among residents. Residents of Mackinac Island are probably healthier than most, he said, in part because they must walk or ride bicycles as their primary mode of transportation.

He also noted that his Mackinac Island patients include “a little more resilient and health-conscious older people.”

But Dr. Hessler has also observed that many of the people who commute to the Island for work smoke cigarettes. Smoking can lead to a multitude of health problems, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

“I wish that wasn’t the case,” he said. “Most of them are young, and it just hasn’t caught up with them, yet.”

Illnesses can spread quickly in a small community like Mackinac Island, Dr. Hessler said. Even so, while the flu was widespread on the mainland, as of Thursday, March 22, there were only two confirmed cases of the flu on Mackinac Island, both being influenza B.

The lack of ferry service during flu season decreased travel to the mainland, acting as a buffer against the illness, he said.

Illnesses on the Island this winter included pneumonia, sinus infections, strep throat, and mononucleosis.

In March, residents struggled with navigating the roads, many of which were covered in thick layers of ice. Since there was no longer enough snow for snowmobiles, Dr. Hessler said elderly residents, especially, had to be very careful when traveling, and most didn’t leave their homes.

The icy streets have also been challenging for Dr. Hessler, who crashed his bicycle three times so far this winter when trying to get to the medical center quickly. The last time he crashed resulted in a broken rib. It is fortunate, he said, that he always wears a helmet and wasn’t hurt worse.

April may be busier, Dr. Hessler expects, as some seasonal workers are expected to arrive earlier this year than in previous years. Visits to the medical center start increasing by May, and by Memorial Day weekend, the facility is busy, he said.

Many of the Island’s international workers visit the medical center for their regular medical appointments when they return for work.

Bicycle accidents are common at the medical center during the summer, and many people ride without helmets, increasing injury. Last year there were several bad accidents that sent cyclists over the front handlebars.

The medical center also sees a lot of work-related injuries during the busy season, including lacerations among cooks and horse handlers and burns among restaurant staff and those who work at T-shirt screen printing shops, who frequently burn themselves on the heat transfer presses.

Since the medical center does not have a CAT scanner, an MRI machine, and other advanced equipment, those suffering serious injuries or illnesses must be transferred to the mainland. A lack of transportation off the Island can be a challenge in the winter, as there have been a few days with no airplane or ferry traffic.

“It’s a little bit dicey sometimes how quickly you can get folks off,” Dr. Hessler said. “We are really reliant on the plane.”

During the winter, an air ambulance from Iron Mountain or Traverse

City is the main mode of medical transfers. From the time a call for a transfer is made, it takes about 50 minutes for the air ambulance to arrive on the Island, from either location. But the plane can only fly in good weather.

“We’ve gotten everybody off without a problem this year,” Dr. Hessler said.

During the summer, patients are transferred to the mainland mostly using the regular passenger ferries. The Mackinac Marine Rescue boat transports patients after hours.

Among planned upgrades for the center is an advanced scope for airways. Staff has been using throat scope blades. They work, but are about 10 years outdated, Dr. Hessler said. The new scope will be equipped with fiber optics and will be easier to use. A new hyfrecator is also coming, which will be used to treat skin lesions. The clinic also features new IV pumps and updated security, including new locks.

Last year, the medical center received a new ultrasound machine that is used to assess whether people are bleeding internally. Visitors to the medical center can also use the new intercom system, which allows people outside to page inside the medical center rather having to use the 9- 1-1 call box.

In the event that the Island ever needed to be evacuated, such as a result of a gas leak or other accident, the medical center staff would work with police, firefighters, and other rescue crews to accomplish that, and practice drills have been held.

“We don’t have a very large medical staff,” Mrs. Goehler said, so thinking about how they would evacuate everyone was a worthwhile endeavor.

As the only doctor living on the Island, Dr. Hessler is on call most days. Typically during the winter, he works for two weeks, then has four days off. The hospital contracts with a medical group to have other doctors from the mainland cover Dr. Hessler. During the summer, he will work for seven days, then will be off for three days, because the medical center is much busier then.

“I’m basically on-call 24 hours a day,” he said in the winter. “I was lucky last year, because there wasn’t a night that I didn’t get less than five hours of sleep.”

The tourist season also brings new resident physicians to the Mackinac Island Medical Clinic, who work closely with and learn from Dr. Hessler. The residents are in their third and final year of training and are overseen by an attending doctor. The residents work on the Island for two weeks before moving to another hospital to continue their training, and they live in the apartments above the medical center, where they can easily respond to calls. Two resident physicians work at the medical center at a time, starting in late April and continuing through early November.

“They learn from me and I learn from them,” Dr. Hessler said. “It’s nice that there’s a doctor in here when a pager goes off.”

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