Toby and Colleen Crimin stand together at Houlton Regional Hospital, where they have been employed after moving to Maine from the state of Washington. Credit: Alexander MacDougall / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — When Toby and Colleen Crimin moved from Iowa to Washington state, it was the realization of a longtime goal.

“It was my dream place to be,” Toby said. “Twenty years, that’s all I wanted to do was move to Washington.”

But during their roadtrip to their new location, the United States was suddenly hit with the worst pandemic to occur in more than a century. The Crimins recalled the eerie drive there, with the roads nearly devoid of other cars.

“You can only drive through McDonald’s, nothing open, no restaurants, nothing but gas stations for bathroom breaks,” Colleen said of their journey there.

When they arrived, they found they had no housing, since Airbnb, which they had booked before leaving, had shut down. Colleen’s contract with her hospital had been canceled. The Crimins instead found themselves living in a small garage converted into a tiny house on a farm in Olalla, Washington, with only a pullout couch and a composting toilet.

The Crimins are traveling medical professionals. Toby works as a respiratory therapist and Colleen as an X-ray technician. Originally from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, they usually take 13-week contracts to work at hospitals in different parts of the country, adding some rich travel experience to their normal medical work.

But the main appeal of traveling to their newest location, the city of Seattle, had been offset by mass closures due to COVID-19, expensive cost of living and civil unrest provoked by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The Crimins decided that once Toby’s contract was up, it was time to look elsewhere.

Though they originally looked at several nearby states such as Oregon and Wyoming, they ended up moving 2,500 miles to the east to work at Houlton Regional Hospital. The hospital had offered them both jobs and had agreed to pay travel expenses for the long move from Washington to Maine.

“I’ve worked the past year and a half at six different hospitals, and the doctors here are right on par with the best of all of them,” Toby said of his new workplace. “Everybody here, I would say, is here because they care, more than they’re here for the money.”

The couple said they were unbothered by the prospect of Aroostook County’s notoriously long and harsh winters, having experienced the same conditions while living in Michigan.

“We’re from Upper Michigan, so we kind of live in the same environment climate-wise,” Colleen said. “So we packed up and drove 35 hours to get here.”

As a respiratory therapist, Toby was in a position of often dealing directly with COVID-19 patients in Washington. Without much help or guidance from the CDC, doctors were improvising on the fly to treat patients, trying all kinds of different treatments, without patients improving much and some dying.

“Asking me to do things I didn’t understand nor believe in was getting very hard for me,” he said. “Here, I’m not asked to do any of that.”

He said the situation is much better at HRH, which is in an area with few reported cases throughout the pandemic, and more serious patients can be sent to Bangor for further medical treatment.

The Crimins also praised Houlton, and Maine in general, for following proper protocols for protecting against the virus, and having some of the lowest case counts in the entire country.

“They’ve been doing things right here, as far as shutting things down when they did, and keeping them shut down,” Toby said.

“The precautions they have set in place here are right on target with even the big cities,” Colleen said. “Actually, it’s a little more aggressive here. If [a breakout] were to happen here, I think they’d be prepared.”