It is not uncommon for people who study the “life” sciences to feel the tug between pure research and applications to the community and public health.

In his senior year at Davidson College, while logging long hours in the lab as a biology and chemistry major, Peter Levandoski ran across Lobsters Great and Small, Philip Conkling’s and Anne Hayden’s 2002 text on Maine’s lobster fishery. Intrigued, he went to the Island Institute website to learn more, happened upon the Island Fellows page, and saw the recruitment ad for a Public Health Outreach Fellow. Flash-forward two years and Peter, now in the second year of his fellowship at Island Community Medical Services, Inc. (ICMS), on Vinalhaven, has barely had time to look back at the strange turn of events that led to his life on a small Maine island.

The ICMS Health Center on the island is a much-appreciated facility, offering the great benefit to islanders of being able to see a doctor and receive immediate treatment without having to make a trip to the mainland. It is a fact of island life, however, that there is no 24-hour emergency room available, and the diagnostic and treatment equipment usually available in a hospital is not available on the island. As a result, Peter learned two immutable facts about health care on an island:

* Health care facilities and professionals must be up to the challenge of meeting all forms of health care needs-illnesses, chronic conditions, emergencies, and preventative care. Peter was immediately impressed with the dedication, versatility, and compassion he found among the health care professionals at the center. It’s not unusual for physician Richard Entel or nurse practitioner Jan Esmond to respond to emergency house calls in the middle of the night.

* The notable resilience of islanders extends to taking care of themselves, to the fullest extent that they can. When you don’t have a hospital or emergency room nearby, you have to try to avoid getting into serious trouble. For people with chronic diseases, like diabetes, self-awareness and the effectiveness of their own treatment-management can mean the difference between life and death.

Peter’s first project was a workshop on diabetes self-management. Dinah Moyer, Executive Director of the Health Center, said, “Without Peter out here doing the work he does, we just would not be able to provide the level of outreach and support for people with chronic conditions. His work is just invaluable in identifying people who need help, scheduling appointments at the health center, and following up with them.” Peter has expanded his medical self-management workshops to serve people with many other chronic conditions.

His office is right next door to the dental clinic at the health center. Peter’s interest in dentistry was piqued, and he now often serves chairside as a dental assistant and helps schedule appointments. Working with the Maine State Oral Health Program, Peter visits schoolchildren in kindergarten to Grade 2 once each week for a fluoride mouth rinse.

Peter has also taken the message of oral health care to parents in meetings organized by the school’s wellness team. Parents of elementary-age children are a particularly keen interest group on health and wellness issues. Healthy Maine Partnerships in Rockland is currently working with Peter to host a series of discussions. Parents who are concerned with substance abuse will have the opportunity to voice their concerns and ask questions about the subject, and Peter hopes that these informal discussion groups will generate some fruitful discussion on early prevention.

Peter feels fortunate that he came to Vinalhaven through the health center, for he has felt welcomed as a part of the professional team from the beginning. As for the patients, he said, “You have to remember that healthcare is a very delicate, personal issue for most people. Trying to change attitudes to health behaviors is a real challenge-especially when you’re young and people don’t know much about you.” He’s grateful that patients have come to feel more comfortable around him over time, due in great part to the strong support he gets from his colleagues at the health center.

Peter feels he has grown in unexpected ways. This would-be solitary lab researcher is feeling more confident speaking before groups of students, parents, and patients, even teaching a class in Tai Chi. He loves the fact that he lives in a friendly, safe community, and that he’s gotten to know so many neighbors. “Everybody waves at passing cars here, just because there aren’t that many, but it was great to notice that more people started waving because they knew me and were waving hello.”

This is Peter’s second and final year as an Island Fellow. He is applying to dental school right now, and hopes that is where he’ll be next year. Ask any dentist, and surely he or she will tell you that drawing patients in for needed treatment is a major challenge. Peter has already demonstrated on Vinalhaven that he has the energy, creativity, and training skills to reach out and draw patients in for the health services they need.