'Pull together and help each other'

April 23, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

DEAL ISLAND -- At the Island Seafood Deli here, owners Millie Gruver and Liz Simmons bought tickets to a benefit over in Princess Anne tonight. So did the staff and customers on a recent sunny afternoon in front of Arby's General Store.

Residents across the bridge -- in Chance, Dames Quarter and the other tiny communities that dot Route 363 as it winds across the lower Eastern Shore -- also have bought tickets. They want to help two hard-hit Deal Island families facing sizable medical bills. The benefit, a silent auction of donated dinners and fishing trips followed by a stage show featuring area musicians, dancers and actors, has been organized by the Deal Island-Chance Lions Club.

Proceeds from the 1,000 tickets will be divided between the families of Sarah Louise Anderson and Luke Miller Abbott. Sarah is 5 and recovering from a rare form of facial cancer. Luke is 2 and, after nearly drowning, faces a less-certain prognosis.

"This area is really close-knit," said Jeanne Webster Abbott, a Deal Island resident coordinating the benefit. "When one hurts, we all feel the pain from it."

Mrs. Abbott had begun organizing the benefit for Sarah's family when trouble struck close to her own.

Luke Abbott, her nephew by marriage, wandered away from a baby sitter the afternoon of Feb. 24. Paramedics found him face down in water near Rock Hall, farther north on the Eastern Shore, where the family had moved to escape poor oystering conditions during the winter. The boy had stopped breathing, but was revived, then flown to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he has been kept in a medically induced comatose state while doctors try to heal the damage to his lungs.

"This has to be the most emotionally devastating project I've ever worked on," Mrs. Abbott said earlier this week, her voice breaking and her eyes filling with tears.

The Anderson family faces more than $130,000 in medical bills, coping with a Catch-22 typical of many being mentioned as national debate continues on health care reform.

David Anderson, Sarah's father, now has medical insurance through his employer, Wal-Mart in Salisbury. But Mrs. Anderson explains that the policy did not cover their daughter's cancer and its treatment because her husband had not worked the 90 days required to give Sarah coverage when she woke one morning with a knot on her right temple.

"We've been in limbo since April 29, when the tumor came up on her face," Mrs. Anderson said.

In limbo, but not alone.

"We all know each other -- you go through it together," Mrs. Anderson said, as Sarah romped through the living room after school, where her teacher is the same one who taught her mother nearly three decades ago.

Mrs. Anderson is the granddaughter and daughter of Deal Island watermen, and her husband worked as a waterman until last year, when poor oyster harvests forced him to seek work inland. She and her husband live in a 110-year-old house that has been in his family for generations, and Mrs. Anderson's words evoke the same sense of community described by Mrs. Abbott and other residents.

"I can say I've got really good neighbors," Mrs. Anderson said. "They brought food, checked on the house. . . . It's been a really hard year. There's not much money around here. The water business just fell apart. . . . For everybody to try to pull together and help each other out, I think that's just great."

She worked at a company that makes gasoline-pump parts when she was pregnant with Sarah. When co-workers learned of Sarah's illness, they raised $4,000 with a hymn-sing benefit.

Now, Mrs. Anderson works part time at a gift and card shop in Salisbury. Help came from there, too. The shop owner kept her job open for her, although she couldn't work all summer because Sarah's illness and the effects of chemotherapy.

The girl's long-term chances of recovery are good, Mrs. Anderson said, although she will continue to make regular trips to the hospital for checkups and medication.

The future is still unclear for Luke Abbott, whose family also will benefit from tonight's show. He is struggling for life more than three hours away at Johns Hopkins.

"They can't say," said Luke's mother, Sheila Abbott in a brief interview from the hospital where she and her husband have been since the toddler's accident. "Nobody knows. Nobody can say anything. It's the unknown that's scary."

The Abbotts don't know the full extent of their medical bills yet, but one family member estimated them at $200,000, and the costs continue to climb.

Like the Andersons, the Abbotts have earned their livings on the water for generations.

"We're self-employed watermen," Sheila Abbott said. And like the Andersons, the Abbotts face the financial uncertainty of enormous medical bills, although they also have some insurance.

Luke's mother said she will stay with her son as long as he's hospitalized. She said doctors are planning to move him to a Delaware hospital next week, and she and her husband, Allen, will go with him.

"He's defied all the odds," she said. "I'm not giving up on him."

Her faith and determination are echoed all along the Shore.

At White's Market in St. Stephen, a few miles up the road from the Deal Island bridge, a portable sign next to the gas pumps out front asks passers-by to "Pray for Luke, Sarah and Donald Jr." (another local child recovering from recent emergency surgery).

Owner Suzy White has a ticket to tonight's benefit, too.

"Any time something like this happens, we all pull together," she said. And in a spontaneous burst of local pride, she added, "You don't have that across the big ditch [the Chesapeake Bay]."

TO HELP

Tickets to tonight's benefit for the two Deal Island families are $5. They can be bought at the door of Washington High School, Route 13, Princess Anne.

A fund has been established to help both families: The Abbott-Anderson Medical Fund, P.O. Box 1, 23195 Edelen Webster Road, Deal Island 21821. Information: Jeanne Webster Abbott, (410) 651-9110.

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