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Retreat centers open doors to doctors and first responders for quarantine

  • The “tombstone” in the MacDowell Colony’s Schelling Studio, where Dayna Ferguson was the first to sign to “physician” rather than “author” or “writer.” Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Monadnock Community Hospital Dr. Dayna Ferguson is staying at a MacDowell Colony studio instead of with his family while he works in the emergency department fighting coronavirus. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Monadnock Community Hospital Dr. Dayna Ferguson signs the “tombstone” in the MacDowell Colony’s Schelling Studio, the first to sign to “physician” rather than “author” or “writer.” Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Monadnock Community Hospital Dr. Dayna Ferguson is staying at a MacDowell Colony cottage instead of with his family while he works in the emergency department fighting coronavirus. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/22/2020 1:09:27 PM

Coming home at the end of the day is not necessarily a comfort if there’s a risk of exposing a family or household member to COVID-19. That’s where family physician Dr. Dayna Ferguson found himself, working in the emergency room at Monadnock Community Hospital a couple weeks ago. In a turn of events befitting the strangeness of the times, he is now sleeping in a studio normally reserved for the world’s most promising writers at Peterborough’s MacDowell Colony.

“I have four children and my oldest daughter was really sick in January,” he said, with necrotizing pneumonia and other complications. She’d been badly sick before, and Ferguson suspected she could be immunocompromised, and therefore more vulnerable to COVID-19. Luckily for him, the MacDowell Colony and the Barbara C. Harris Center in Greenfield have both offered their facilities as emergency housing for medical professionals, in order to protect families like Ferguson’s.

“Is this for real? Are you offering this?” MCH Vice President of Community Relations and Philanthropy Laura Gingras recalled thinking when MacDowell Colony’s Resident Director David Macy and Barbara C. Harris Center Executive Director John Koch called, offering their facilities for free. “It was just incredible,” she said.

Initially, Macy said he tried to find a way to stay open for the artists by treating studios as isolation spaces, but they couldn’t figure out a way to provide meals and laundry services safely, especially with new residents arriving every couple days. All artists left the colony over two weeks in March, and Macy floated the idea to Gingras and the hospital as they closed down.

“We are held in public trust and we’re here to do public good,” Macy said. If they typically host artists in order to encourage more of their work in the world, it was an easy step to host medical professionals right now, he said. “It feels good to be able to do something.”

The Barbara C. Harris Center has specifically offered rooms for hospital employees and first responders employed in Greenfield who have either tested positive for the virus or otherwise needed to quarantine after an exposure, Koch said.

“It fits in our mission of hospitality,” he said, and the center normally feeds and houses groups who come for retreats and meetings. “Offering it to hospital workers was a natural extension of what we already do.”

The conference center has hotel room-style lodging with private rooms and baths, he said. Employees needing to quarantine would receive a two week supply of food, linens, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, Koch said, and they were prepared to reopen their kitchen if they wound up hosting enough people at once. The center’s nine full-time and six part-time employees are all still employed for the moment, he said. Greenfield’s cache of emergency food for vulnerable populations is also being stored on site, Koch said.

To be eligible for emergency housing, hospital employees must verify they could potentially expose a vulnerable individual by staying at home, Gingras said. There are currently no workers staying at the conference center, although it’s a great comfort to know they have access to additional housing if the need arises, she said. There are currently four employees housed in studios at the MacDowell Colony, Macy said.

Ferguson described his accommodations in the Schelling studio, completed in 1908, “like a Walden Pond.” The small building has a fireplace and is surrounded by woods. “There was a porcupine in the parking lot when I drove in the other day,” he said. It’s not a totally isolating experience, though. He does laundry and gets meals at the hospital, and even sees his family under the controlled circumstances his temporary home affords. His son’s birthday was two Fridays ago, and after work, Ferguson showered and put on clean clothes, and visited home while wearing a mask and keeping a six-foot distance. “It’s a convenient place where I can stay for the time while this is going on,” he said.

What will tell him it’s safe to come home? “That’s the million dollar question,” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that… when we have a functioning vaccine I’ll know that it’s safe,” he said. “I’m not sure if I can do [this] for a year and a half.”

Community Education/Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Michael Greenough is staying at the Heyward studio. “It’s a wonderful place, it’s a peaceful place, a place I get to go and kind of decompress,” he said, and that he “can’t give enough gratitude to the MacDowell Colony.” Greenough usually lives with his father, who has multiple comorbidities that makes him extra vulnerable to COVID-19, he said. Although Greenough sends laundry home, he’s been sticking around the studio on his time off. Every night, he looks up a couple more names on the tablets in the studio to find out more about the residents who stayed there in the past. Most were poets or writers.

“I started asking people, if there was a piano in your studio, would you use it?” Macy said, as he checked in other medical professionals. “One [resident] is a poet and I put her in the studio where James Baldwin worked on “Notes of a Native Son.” It’s nice seeing people light up about something that means something to them,” he said.

Neither Ferguson nor Greenough had ever visited the MacDowell Colony before moving into a studio. Typically, artists apply in a competitive process for an opportunity to sequester in one of the 32 studios on site for a couple weeks or months. Initially, Macy said he thought this marked the first time that non-artists were invited to stay on site. However, the Colony’s librarian discovered that in 1918, Marian MacDowell opened the site to soldiers returning from World War I, to help them acclimate to peacetime society.

There’s even been another doctor in the Schelling studio. In 2011 and 2013, writer and doctor Sheri Fink, who authored several books about practicing medicine in disaster and conflict zones. Last week, Ferguson signed his name on the studio’s tablet, the first “physician” after a long line of writers the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Charlie Kaufman.

Other hospital employees are staying at the Jack Daniels Motor Inn at reduced rates, Gingras said, and other local venues have offered their accommodations to the hospital, too. For first responders, the state emergency operations center coordinates places for first responders to stay should they need to quarantine or begin to feel like they can’t go home, Paul Raymond, a representative from the Joint Information Center said. State personnel typically coordinate with the local municipality of a first responder in need, he said, but have also reserved hotel rooms throughout the state. To date, the program has housed about 400 first responders statewide for some amount of time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Costs are anticipated to be covered by FEMA disaster funds, he said. No Peterborough-based first responders had needed to take advantage of the program, Fire Chief Ed  Walker said last week.

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