Kodiak man’s protest ends with no change to hospital visit policy

Man sits next to sign that reads "Let me see her!!"
Marvin Abbott of Kodiak on September 11, 2020, after being denied visitation rights to his daughter due to COVID-19 safety precautions, camps outside of Providence Hospital in Anchorage. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

A Kodiak fisherman was in the headlines last month when he pitched a tent in front of Providence Alaska Medical Center.

Marvin Abbott camped out at the Anchorage hospital for more than a month to protest its COVID-19 policies, which restrict patient visits as a safety precaution. His daughter, Rachelle, had been medevaced from Kodiak to Providence after a severe asthma attack left her in a coma.

Rachelle Abbott has since been moved to the Alaska Native Medical Center, where she had been on the waiting list. There are now plans to move her again, into long-term care. Her family says recent tests show she’s had extensive brain damage.

The family says her move out of the ICU might allow more visits.

As for Abbott, he packed up his tent at Providence and moved into an RV, loaned to him by a man who heard his story on the radio. For now, his winter job as a maintenance man is on hold. He remains as determined as ever to stay close to his daughter.

The leaves were green back when Abbott set up a cot near the edge of the street at the start of his protest. Soon he had a tent, given to him by someone who heard his story on the news. Another man, who Abbott describes as a guy with a big truck and a big heart, dropped off a heater.

Since then, the leaves have turned to gold and scattered. And all the while, his daughter Rachelle remained in a coma. The hospital has allowed Abbott to visit her three times, but most days he sat on the curb and looked up at her window

“It makes it easier sitting here for me, being close to her,” Abbott said. “I don’t know. I feel more in touch with her, when I’m sitting here looking across. I think I know I should be up in the room, next to her, holding her hand.”

Most families with loved ones at Providence have not been allowed to visit — part of the hospital’s strict policy to prevent the spread of COVID-19. So how did Abbott get to see his daughter? The hospital says the visits had nothing to do with his protest but were allowed because doctors needed to ask him about his daughter’s care.

Dr. Michael Bernstein is Providence’s chief medical officer. He says the hospital had hoped to relax its visitation policies, but now with coronavirus on the upswing, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

“It’s all a matter of weighing the risks versus the potential benefits, and they’re tough decisions to make,” said Bernstein, who stressed that there’s a lot at stake.

“We’re also a major trauma center.,” he said. “We’re the largest hospital in the state. If we have an outbreak amongst our staff, as has happened in other places and in one of our skilled nursing facilities, it can devastate our ability to provide any type of care to the community.”

But for families with patients, the hospital’s policy takes a toll. Abbott’s mother, Lydia Olsen, followed her son from Kodiak to Anchorage. Although she stayed with a family friend, she went to his camp every day in support.

“He said, Mom, I gotta go. I gotta do something,” Olsen said. “So, he had a sign made, with a picture of her in ICU and it said, ‘Let me see her.’”

When Abbott visited his daughter in the ICU, Olsen listened in on her cell phone.

“He just talked the whole hour to her,” she said. “Reminded her of what of what a strong person she is.”

Abbott says he constantly told his daughter how proud he was of her — and all that she had overcome.

“When she was 20, she got pregnant in high school and got a kid and you know, she never gave up,” Abbott said. “She graduated at the age of 20 . She never gave up. She’s always fought to the end, you know.”

Abbott says Rachelle had a successful summer working on a fishing boat and at 26 had finally turned her life around. He said he told how her much she has to live for and how much her nine-year-old daughter, Izzy, needs her mom.

“I fully believe that it would be helpful for Izzy and Papa to get into see Rachelle,” Olsen said. “I think their presence and their voices can do things that the doctors can’t do.”

People dropped by Abbott’s tent every day to tell him they thought it was wrong for the hospital to keep him from his daughter. Bailey Klappenbach dropped off a handwritten note to Abbott’s family, one of hundreds of visitors who stopped by to offer encouragement.

Bill Pagaran, a Tlingit drummer, came to sing a song of healing and asked Abbott to beat the drum with him. He also encouraged Abbott to pray out loud, which Abbott said was the most helpful advice he’s had during this whole ordeal.

“The outpouring of love and support and encouragement has been absolutely phenomenal,” Olsen said. “He knows he’s not alone. So, it became that thing about not only doing it for himself but doing it for other people.”