Updated June 27
A Chappaquiddick man endured stress and discomfort when the Steamship Authority refused to allow his partner medical passage to collect him from Massachusetts General Hospital following open-heart surgery. The post-op man was forced to cross Vineyard Sound on the Patriot’s Quickwater, trading the comfort of a pickup truck on a ferry for the windy stern of the relatively small boat.
After his physicians deemed he could no longer delay the procedure, Billy Gazaille underwent surgery on May 7, despite the ongoing pandemic and the curtailments it placed on medical care. He was released from MGH on May 12. His partner, Rachel Self, had driven him up to Boston without issue. Self and Gazaille rode the Quickwater to Falmouth, and then, using what she called her “Patriot car,” drove to MGH. Trouble began when she tried to book passage to retrieve him after the surgery was done.
Self said she wasn’t permitted to enter the hospital to visit Gazaille due to pandemic restrictions. Also due to pandemic restrictions, there was nowhere to lodge in Boston, so she waited at home on Cape Poge for his release authorization. When it came, he wasn’t getting an ambulance ride.
“He didn’t need to be transported in an ambulance,” Self said. Medical staff, she recalled, said he was to be driven home.
She also said she couldn’t have made a Steamship Authority reservation because of the uncertainty surrounding when he would be cleared for release.
Instead of using the car she had in the Patriot parking lot, Self opted to use their pickup truck, because she said her partner is a big guy, and the truck would afford him as much comfort as possible, given its roominess.
In a letter sent to the Steamship Authority and several state officials, Self described her attempt to secure passage on May 11 for May 12.
“As soon as I got off the phone with the doctor,” she wrote, “I called the Steamship Authority to find out how to get our vehicle on a boat so that I could transport Bill home in the safest way for him and everyone around us. I spoke with a woman … whom, I was later shocked to learn, was a manager with the authority. I had been given a letter from Bill’s surgeon, and I asked if I could provide this letter, proving Bill’s need for transport; I was told that I could not, because ‘people fake letters.’ I was told I needed a ‘special form’ filled out by the doctor. She did not elaborate on how exactly this ‘special form’ would differ in any meaningful way from the letter I already had, which provides both the details of his treatment and the information necessary to contact Bill’s doctors for corroboration. She then informed me that it needed to be sent by 4 pm, because ‘we close at 4 pm,’ and needed to come directly from the doctor, ‘because people lie.’”
Self alleged the woman staffer said even if MGH sent the proper form before 4 pm, there was no guarantee of passage. When Self asked to speak to a manager, Self alleges, the woman staffer said she was a manager, and knows “more about this process than anyone else in the office,” her letter states.
“[The female manager] informed me that even if all the appropriate documentation was provided in time,” she wrote, “there was no way I would be able to take our vehicle off the Island before 3:45 pm the next day — because if Bill was not with me, the form didn’t count. I would not be accommodated in taking our vehicle off the Island to pick him up at the hospital, because he would not be physically with me and the ‘special form’ only applies to him.”
With few other choices, Self made a 5 am reservation on the Chappy Ferry for May 12, which she said she had no trouble doing, and drove to the SSA Vineyard Haven terminal with a completed medical form. She said she had an 8:30 am appointment to pick up Gazaille that had little latitude, due to pandemic restrictions. She got to the terminal at 5:30 am, expecting to seek passage on a 6 am ferry. She learned there was no 6 am ferry at that time, and admitted this seemed to be common knowledge that had escaped her. Distraught, she said she spoke with an SSA staffer who was disrespectful to her, she alleged, by yelling and exhibiting an “adversarial mentality.”
At some point, she said, former terminal manager Richard Clark spoke with her, and was polite and respectful and told her the earliest possible ferry was 7 am, if there was space.
Upon hearing that, Self said she hastened to Oak Bluffs, where Patriot Party Boats staff allowed her to park in a space designated for their company, and she boarded the Quickwater for Falmouth, and then took her car up to Boston. At MGH, she said, they were tardy in bringing Gazaille down due to elevator problems. Security staff had given her two minutes to park and collect Gazaille. Four minutes later, she said, three security personnel were outside her car demanding she drive away. A nurse then appeared, she said, and said Gazaille would emerge imminently.
Sapped from a double bypass, Gazaille got in the car, and they drove to Falmouth.
Gazaille told The Times he would have much preferred being in their pickup truck in a ferry. When they arrived at the Quickwater, “I didn’t want to sit inside because I’d just come from the hospital,” he said, in reference to his concerns about possible novel coronavirus exposure.
He sat on the stern of the vessel in the wind, which he described as “uncomfortable.”
Once in Oak Bluffs, he said, it was difficult to exit the boat, but the crew helped. “The deck hands each had an arm,” he said.
“It was a whole lot of stress for Rachel, and it kind of ticked me off,” he said.
Gazaille, a 1973 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard High School, said he’d never had such an experience.
Gazaille later said he got a call from the SSA employee Self had spoken to originally. She “didn’t sound happy about it, but it was an apology,” he said.
Self said that the manager apologized to her too, and said she’d had a very bad day on May 11, and was “very, very, apologetic”.
In her letter, Self’s criticism of the SSA was unsparing. She leveled equal opprobrium speaking with The Times. “They definitely failed miserably,” she said. “They failed me. They failed Billy.”
Conversely, she said, the Chappy Ferry and Patriot Party Boats treated herself and her partner very well. “Patriot Party Boats saved us that day, and could not have been kinder,” she said. “They are my heroes.”
She said she hopes the SSA will not just try to reform “a major hole in their policy” but will actually get the job of policy reform done.
The female manager Gazaille and Self dealt with could not be reached for comment. Asked about the ordeal Gazaille and Self endured, SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll issued a statement, and declined to answer further questions on the matter.
“We have received Ms. Self’s letter, and thank her for taking the time to communicate her concerns regarding our medical travel policy,” Driscoll stated. “Steamship Authority staff regularly assist individuals and families who have urgent medical needs, and make travel accommodations for them in accordance with our travel policies. We have assisted with a number of these instances during the current COVID-19 crisis as well, which is an especially stressful time for everyone. We are reviewing our medical travel policy and procedures, and anticipate bringing recommendations for revisions to the Port Council and board in July. Again, we thank Ms. Self for bringing this matter to our attention so we can continue to improve our service for our traveling public.”
The Port Council is slated to convene on July 1.
Self also said she had a productive call with SSA general manager Robert Davis. She said Davis was very apologetic, and said she shouldn’t have had the experience she did.
In a follow-up email Self shared, Davis echoed Driscoll’s statement about impending policy changes. “I have had discussions with staff to review the medical travel policy and to provide me with their thoughts,” he said. “Those ideas, along with the suggestions you provided, will form the recommendations we present to our board and Port Council at an upcoming meeting(s) for approval. I anticipate having a draft of those recommendations later this month, and would be happy to share those with you for your thoughts before requesting action by the Port Council and Board in July.”
SSA board chair Jim Malkin emailed Self after receiving her letter. “I am very sorry to read your description of a troubling and difficult experience,” he wrote, and added an investigation and “appropriate action” would be forthcoming.
Self replied that her conversations with Davis and the manager had been productive. She indicated the manager “agreed change is needed, and that the Steamship’s adversarial posture on this issue is not the right place to be coming from, and that the concerns for people ‘faking it’ shouldn’t ever trump the risk that someone actually might be denied desperately needed medical transportation.”
She went on to write, “It’s always darkest before the dawn. Billy is now home, and he has been healing well, so now that the worst is behind us, we are hopeful that our experience can help others, and that we can move forward to effect the change so desperately needed on this issue (sooner rather than later). Thank you again so much for caring.”
On June 23, Gazaille said, “I just today got permission to drive again.” He went on to joke, “I don’t make a good passenger.”