For Diane Tinker, being “home for the holidays” meant more to her in 2006 than ever before. That’s because the Lubec native, who left Down East at age 17 for a life in Boston, was truly back home.
She and her husband Robert, also a Lubec native, were able to celebrate their first Christmas in their hometown in 47 years. They had left Boston last July—once Diane learned that kidney dialysis was available at a new clinic in Eastport. That would save the couple, now 64 (her) and 70 (him), what would have been time- and gas-consuming drives to Bangor for the demanding medical treatment that keeps Diane alive today.
Just days after the Tinkers enjoyed Thanksgiving with Diane’s four sisters, all but one of them still living in the Downeast area, Diane sent Robert into the woods to bring back a Christmas tree—the first one they ever cut themselves. The pleasures of holiday routines and family nearby keep Diane Tinker going these days. That, plus her three-days-a-week appointments at the Sunrise County Dialysis Center in Eastport.
Tinker, who has lived with damaged kidneys for decades, is on a waiting list in Boston for a kidney transplant. “I knew I had just so long before I had to go on dialysis,” Tinker recalls during her dialysis treatment on a recent Monday. “Living in Boston all those years, I didn’t realize that dialysis had come to Eastport. That meant we could move home.”
Before the Sunrise County Dialysis Center opened in August 2003, Washington County residents with chronic kidney disease had to travel to Bangor (or since 1999, Ellsworth) for the nearest dialysis or consultation with a nephrologist, or kidney specialist.
In Eastport, 16 patients currently come on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for their dialysis treatments, with each session lasting four hours. The clinic is operated by Fresenius Medical Care North America, the country’s largest provider of dialysis centers, with more than 1,500 facilities.
Dr. Shahid Mansoor is the medical director of the Eastport facility. He sees chronic kidney patients at four places: the dialysis center, at the Eastport Health Clinic, at Calais Regional Hospital, and at the Princeton Health Clinic. “Before I came here, the people would travel to Bangor for consultations and dialysis,” Mansoor says. “About 40% would make the trip, and the other 60% just wouldn’t. I knew of eight or nine people who chose not to [and died].”
When Mansoor arrived in Washington County nine years ago, he was fresh off a residency in New York City and not planning to stay beyond three years. A native of Pakistan, he intended to work for three years in a rural area in order to earn his green card from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
But then an Eastport Health Clinic colleague suggested the doctor look into bringing a dialysis facility Downeast. A Fresenius representative arrived within three days of Mansoor’s phone inquiry. “I just said I was working in rural Washington County with both an older population and a Native American population [the Passamaquoddy],” Mansoor said. “That’s all it took to get Fresenius interested. They knew they weren’t going to make money on a clinic here, but they came because it was the right thing to do.”
The city of Eastport was also receptive when the facility was proposed back in 2001. Three hundred people turned out for two separate informational meetings. Using a single-story, Passamaquoddy-owned building already sited along Route 190 on the edge of the peninsula community, the center opened in 2003. Today it employs the medical director, two registered nurses, two patient care technicians, a chief technician, a social worker, a dietician, and an administrator.
According to the National Kidney Foundation of Maine, there are 16 dialysis centers throughout Maine, from York to Presque Isle. In Aroostook County alone, the County Dialysis Center currently serves 52 patients who drive to Presque Isle from as far away as Fort Kent and Patten. Before that center opened 10 years ago, one woman had traveled to Bangor for dialysis three times a week for 13 years.
The daily stresses of dialysis add up, wherever the center. In Diane Tinker’s situation, in addition to the three days dedicated to her dialysis at Eastport, she uses either Tuesday or Thursday to pick up prescription medicines in Machias.
At 64, Tinker is one of the younger and more active patients getting dialysis in Eastport. She is looking forward to warmer weather, when she can return to walking the beach and picking up sea glass. During visits to Lubec in the summer, she used to make jewelry using the sea glass with her grandchildren, but they are older now. Still, Tinker enjoys the memory. “It’s good to be close to family again,” she said. “Family is everything.”