When she was in nursing school, back in the early 1980s, Fran Loring was sure she wanted to practice either obstetrical care or in a psychiatric setting. Her 25-year career at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor took her in many other directions: the emergency department, the medical-surgical bedside, nursing supervision, pain management. She traveled several times with a team of EMMC colleagues to bring health services to Haitian refugees in the Dominican Republic, an experience she describes as “really profound.”
After a taking short break in the 1990s to work in other areas of the country as a traveling nurse, Loring, a native of South Thomaston, came back to EMMC. She supervised construction at the Eastern Maine Healthcare Mall on Union Street while serving as the department head of the new pain control program there, then returned to the hospital’s main campus as a nursing supervisor before being named to head up the obstetrics department.
“Sometimes things come full circle,” she said during a conversation at her home in Bangor. “I had that early interest in OB nursing, and then all those years later I finally had a chance to work in OB and affect how things happened there.”
In 2008, when she was 65, she retired. But Loring wasn’t done yet.
“I missed it so much, I cried every day for the first three years,” she said. She found opportunities to stay involved through fundraising and working as a consultant on fostering culture change in the healthcare setting. She joined a number of community boards, including the Bangor Housing Authority, the Bangor Boys & Girls Club and the Bangor Parks & Recreation Department. And she busied herself playing bridge, working in her garden and enjoying the company of her husband, Frank, her children and grandchildren.
But Loring’s restless spirit was still questing. So she sat up and took notice when, in the summer of 2015, her younger sister Marie announced out of the blue that she was planning to spend two weeks working in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. Marie, whose professional background including working intensively with adults and children in Maine’s foster care system, was no stranger to trauma and felt she could help the refugees who had traveled so far and lost so much to the violence raging in their countries.
The idea immediately registered with Loring, who knew she could make good use, in that desperate environment, of her broad-based experience in health care, teaching, management, construction and travel.
Still, she didn’t jump on the idea right away. After all, she was in her 70s. Healthy and active, to be sure, but coping with predictable age-related problems, including some arthritis, a degenerative condition in her spine and a general reduction in stamina. Plus, she was busy with her family, her garden, her bridge game and her board activities.
Then Marie went to Lesbos and came back two weeks later, full of her experience and committed to returning as soon as possible. “She’s a social worker with a background in trauma,” Loring said. “And as an older volunteer, she was very much needed. The average age of volunteers over there is in their 20s, and nothing in their lives has prepared them for what they’re going to see there.”
‘Not afraid’ of trauma
Reached at her home in South Thomaston, Marie Ilvonen, 65, said her psychotherapy skills were useful in working with a population that had endured the intense trauma of fleeing from their war-ravaged homes, barely escaping to a treacherous and unknown future. But that didn’t mean she was able to establish intensive therapeutic relationships. There just wasn’t time. Instead, she set up a few group sessions with adults to help relieve their stress. She met with spotty success.
“They all needed to vent and tell their stories,” she said. But when she tried to lead them in a deep-breathing exercise to help dial back stress and anxiety, she realized the trauma was in some cases still too new, too raw. “One woman said your deep breathing won’t help me deal with losing my 13-, 14- and 15-year old sons in one bomb,” she recalled. Another woman could not stop weeping, and Ilvonen learned through a translator that her grandson’s lifeless body had just washed up on the shore.
She was humbled but undaunted.
“I’m not afraid of people’s trauma,” she said. “I know there are many ways to instill hope.”
She returned to the camps in May 2016 and again in October, each time getting more deeply involved, working more independently and building slow relationships with refugee children. She brought a supply of yarns and knitting needles and found that women and girls were eager to work with the soft materials. She helped out in the school.
She’s headed back in a few weeks, this time planning to stay for two months. She’ll bring a stash of warm clothing and other supplies but has no specific plans or goals for what she’ll accomplish. “You can’t imagine the difference you can make in someone’s life just by being a decent, caring human being,” she said.
Another sister, 60-year-old Mary Beth Nolette of Biddeford, also took the plunge, as did her daughter, Bethany Snow of Portland. They traveled separately to Lesbos in May of this year and did different work. While Snow stayed two months and worked directly with children and adults in the camps, Nolette stayed two weeks and was posted at the north end of the island with other volunteers, keeping watch across the narrow strait to Turkey for incoming refugee boats.
“I lobstered as a kid, and I was drawn to those people in their boats,” she said. She would have been glad to go out on one of the rescue boats to intercept the refugees and bring them to safety, but she wasn’t allowed on that dangerous mission. Instead, she was prepared to greet the refugees with clean, warm, dry clothes, some snacks and water and whatever other comfort and reassurance she could provide.
“These people are terrified. They’re arriving on foreign soil. They don’t know if they’re safe or not,” Nolette said. The inflatable boats they arrive in are typically poorly constructed, desperately overcrowded and provided with few or no necessities. There’s barely enough fuel in their unreliable motors to make the crossing.
“These are desert people,” she said. “They don’t know how to put on a life jacket or balance a boat or how the sea behaves.”
Nolette plans to return to Lesbos in October or November.
Ready to serve, with a larger vision for refugees in Bangor
And that’s serendipitous, because that’s when her oldest sister, Fran Loring, plans to go, too.
She’s making plans now — having her teeth cleaned, getting an extra pair of glasses, refilling her prescriptions, figuring out a practical wardrobe.
Loring plans to stay two weeks on this first visit and like her sisters and most other volunteers take advantage of commercially available lodging on the island of Lesbos, which up until the refugee crisis reached its shores was a popular destination for tourists.
“This is not a third-world country,” she said. “There are stores and restaurants, but 90 percent of the tourism economy is gone because tourists don’t want to see the refugees.” Local businesses are in desperate need of volunteer dollars.
There are several international aid groups working on the island, but there is no central organization for deploying volunteers. Loring is prepared to do whatever needs doing and confident she can make a difference.
“If you’re going to do something, just get in there and do it,” she said.
Beyond that, Loring sees an opportunity to further another passion she has — opening the door to bringing more refugees to settle in Greater Bangor. It’s a flag she has been waving for years, recently bolstered by talk of establishing a multicultural center in the city and developing a regional strategy to bring more immigrants here.
“It’s a combination of pragmatism and idealism,” she said. On one hand, Maine needs an influx of younger residents to boost its workforce. From a larger perspective, she said, it’s “appalling” that the U.S. has been so slow to resettle refugees from Syria and other war-torn nations here.
“We are a nation of immigrants,” Loring said. “We should be the first to say, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ We should be the first to step forward.’”