ROCKLAND — A late-April ruling by the Maine State Ferry Service (MSFS) meant blood samples taken in island health care clinics could no longer be transported by ferry crews and captains. But after the May 7 meeting of the Ferry Advisory Board, the MSFS agreed to investigate how to comply with federal and other regulations regarding the practice.
Donna Wiegle, director of Swan’s Island’s Mill Pond Health Center, asked that the matter be considered by the advisory board. She explained that she draws blood once a week from islanders, often at the request of mainland physicians.
The vials are enclosed in plastic bags, which are secured in a small cooler, the kind designed to hold a beverage six-pack. The cooler is then carried to the ferry where a deck hand takes them.
The cooler, she believes, is held in the ferry’s wheelhouse, then given to a waiting courier in Bass Harbor, who carries it to a hospital lab.
But John Anders, MSFS manager, explained the decision to discontinue the practice, saying, “It was never a policy” to allow the transport of blood samples.
“I became aware of it a short time ago and wasn’t aware that the crew were taking the care and custody of blood samples,” he said.
The town manager of the island town of Islesboro called the ferry service and asked about transporting blood samples, Anders said, which was when he first learned of the informal practice.
“It appears to be a past practice that was very loosely defined,” he said.
Legal advisors in the Department of Transportation, of which the ferry service is a part, were concerned about the transport of the samples, he said. In addition, “There are a number of our captains who are uncomfortable” with the practice, Anders said.
Jon Emerson, a selectman on North Haven, whose clinic is managed by the town, also spoke at the advisory board meeting in support of retaining the policy. Though the island often is able to use Penobscot Island Air to transport samples to the mainland, that is not the best arrangement, he said.
“It’s really a good thing,” Emerson said of the MSFS accommodating the island clinics. He suggested a kind of locker be installed on the boats where clinic staff, like Wiegle, could place the samples and then secure them before the ferry leaves the island, and where a courier could then remove them on the mainland.
After much discussion among board members and ferry service staff, Swan’s Island resident and advisory board member Sonny Sprague said 25 years ago he was diagnosed with a heart ailment whose treatment required frequent blood tests. For years, he would travel to the mainland to be tested, which meant he would lose a day of fishing. But for the last decade, Wiegle has taken the samples and shipped them via the ferry.
“It’s made one hell of a difference in my life,” Sprague said.
Advisory board chairwoman Lisa Shields of North Haven was direct in wrapping up the discussion.
“Let’s try to make this work,” she said to Anders and his supervisor, Rick Dubois of the Department of Transportation. “How can we make it work?”
A committee that includes MSFS representatives, advisory board members and Wiegle was formed to investigate how to comply with regulations relating to ferry captains and crew taking custody of the samples.
Dubois and Anders were pessimistic about finding an easy solution. The current ferry “tariff,” the document that describes the service’s duties and responsibilities, does not include such work. And once the service learned that blood was being transported by ferry crew, they said, there would be no turning back on meeting federal and state regulations covering potential exposure to blood. How much training would be required of staff to meet regulations is an unknown, they said.