Dose of the Coast: A daughter’s act of love turns into a prescription to help patients by George Morrison

The two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys it and the day he sells it, or so the saying goes. But it didn’t hold true for Don Walker.

Though Walker loved the water, cancer weakened him to the point that he sold his boat. So, his daughter, Ashley Ferguson and her husband, Adam, arranged a charter boat fishing trip with him in 2014. A small thing for a daughter; a big one for a dad.

“Two days before he passed away, he said, ‘You know, thank you, baby, for that trip,’ ” Ferguson said. “And I said, ‘What trip? What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘That fishing trip.’ ‘You mean the one at Empire? That was a year ago.’ It just stuck with me because we hadn’t talked about it.

“That was the trip that, literally, on his deathbed, he was recalling. It wasn’t until after he passed away that I really started digesting how important it was.”

So important, she decided, she wanted to share the good feelings it brought her dad.

Earlier this year, Ferguson created Dose of the Coast, which provides fishing, sailing or cruising trips for people with life-altering illnesses. Including family members who get to come along, Dose of the Coast has provided trips for 21 patients and 63 of their family members since starting in May.

Ferguson, a fish biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, approached charter boat captain Sam Barbera, who agreed to donate his time. Dr. Jonathan Richards at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center agreed to help cover the charter operators’ gasoline and supplies. More charter captains and other donors came forward to make it a reality.

For those who don’t want to fish, Ben and Heather Schultz have donated trips on their 36-foot sailboat, Velvet Elvis, out of Slidell. Ferguson also has arranged sunset cruises on pontoon boats.

Finally, Ferguson needed patients, which are in no short supply. She approached Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center, which quickly saw its value for patients whose lives have become wrapped up in fighting their disease.

“It gives them something to look forward to and fun to plan for,” said Francine Lawrence, the center’s Survivorship Program manager. “It begins its healing effect just from the moment of signing up and getting the application ready and knowing that is something on their calendar. Just to see them on the day — they’re so happy.”

Anita Taylor, 53, of Baton Rouge, is a five-year cancer survivor whose summer fishing trip gave her a chance to take her mind off the after-effects of chemotherapy and caring for an aging mother.

“It was important for me because I feel a deep sense of diminished capacity,” Taylor said. “I’ve always been a highly productive person and cancer had narrowed by bandwidth significantly, which is very frustrating for me. … Ashley and her team went above and beyond.”

“I think it’s a great cause,” said John Lorio, 43, of Livonia, who made a similar trip while being treated for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “It just gives people a chance not to worry … and just have a good time. It was awesome to spend time with your family and get your mind off of things.”

These trips have an impact that goes beyond the time spent on the water, Lawrence said. Research shows that pleasant experiences and thoughts help the body produce hormones that strengthen the immune system.

“So, in my mind, when I see them happy and excited and doing the planning, I know that they’ve switched off the cortisol, which the body produces when we’re stressed and anxious, and switched on the dopamine and the serotonin and the oxytosin, and I know from the research that they have increased their chance of helping their body in every way possible to do its best at that moment,” she said.

The center’s board of directors presented Ferguson with the D. Jensen Holliday Memorial Award on Dec. 12 for the work of Dose of the Coast.

“It’s really about the family and making those memories with that person and having something to talk about and celebrate and enjoy your time together and forget about some of the stuff that maybe you’re going through,” Ferguson said.