Vasilis Tsipas, a psychiatrist, squeezes his suitcase into a boat’s special compartment and puts on a life jacket. He is making his rounds by sea for the next two weeks to visit patients on remote islands scattered across the Aegean Sea.
“You might think the fresh air and the absence of city stress would render these people healthy,” he says. “But isolation is harsh, especially during the winter months.”
Nearly all his patients on the islands are women, some of whom suffer occasional bouts of depression. But most people come to see him simply because they need to speak with someone.
Vasilis’ maritime practice is part of a broader boat-based program run by doctors, expert seamen, and a host of volunteers for the past 21 years. The team, called Omada Aigaiou (Aegean Team), aims to fill the holes of the state’s health care system by providing free checkups and, occasionally, acting as an ambulance. Private companies and individuals donate money and equipment to keep the program running.
This year’s expedition includes an array of medical specialists, including gynecologists, cardiologists, dentists, plastic surgeons, neurologists, oncologists, and mental health experts like Vasilis. Together, the crews cover a total of 500 nautical miles and visit 11 islands, some of which are on the fringes of wealthier tourist hotspots.
Every May, crews gather on a long sandy stretch in Lagonisi — 40 kilometers outside Athens — and pile into 13 inflatable high-speed motorboats. A fourteenth boat, painted with a red cross, follows at a distance carrying an entire ton of the team’s medical supplies.
The psychiatrist’s job, though no less demanding than the other specialties, is much more delicate. “I cannot treat someone based on a few visits. It doesn’t work that way,” he explains. “Our team, we go for a few days on each island every year, and then we leave, but our impact lasts longer. I have to be very careful.” He adds, “I very rarely prescribe pills or alter the dosage for a patient — though I sometimes have had to, in severe and very obvious cases.”
Vasilis recalls an informal family consultation he did in Donousa, an island of 160 people. The family’s preteen daughter was acting out, causing her mother great stress. It turned out the mother became clinically depressed after moving from the city to live with her husband in the rural island community. Vasilis treated the mother and followed up in subsequent visits. “She is well now. And the daughter, now 17, always comes down to the port and welcomes me,” he says.
In Anafi, Vasilis meets with more men than usual. Anafi is a small set of rugged hills towering out of the water, whose quiet beaches attract small-scale tourism between June and September. But the winter months are desolate. The only thing that flourishes are the rabbits.
“Doctor, I need you to sign a paper stating I am suitable to carry a rifle,” a male patient requests. “I need it to hunt rabbits.” Greek law requires citizens to get an evaluation from a psychiatrist or a neurologist in order to own a gun. Over the next few hours, other patients make similar requests. Hunting is a way to blow off steam and beat the winter blues, but it’s also needed to protect the island’s subsistence crops from the rampant rabbit population, Vasilis explains.
After Anafi, I break off from the team to return to Athens via Santorini, which is already filled with tourist buses. The team heads north-east, to Astypalaia, and then on to Patmos, Arkii, Leipsi, Agathonisi, Fourni, and Thymaina. In some of these communities, where the team has saved lives, residents express their gratitude with festivities that run deep into the night.
I ask Thomas, one of the captains who is traveling back to Athens with me, why he loves being a part of the team. He has developed a back problem, probably from the chronic banging of his boat against the waves. “It’s good for my soul,” he says.