On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico with winds of up to 155 mph and torrential rain that caused severe flooding. The island was declared a “major disaster zone” by the White House with widespread damage to homes and businesses and devastation to the power grid. The destruction was unprecedented and there was an emergent need for a range of health services, hygiene promotion, and psychological support. Hearing the constant news about the damage was very disturbing to me because Puerto Rico is my homeland and many of my relatives still live there. There was no communication from them for weeks. Each day the feeling that I needed to be there to help rose and I kept thinking, “How can I help?” I was tired of hearing the bad news and feeling helpless so I started searching online for volunteer opportunities. I came across a non-profit organization called Project HOPE, and in early November I left on a 15-day medical mission to Puerto Rico.
Weeks after the hurricane, more than 90 percent of the island still did not have power and many towns were still without running water. By the time I arrived the situation had improved dramatically, but unevenly. The capital city of San Juan was still without power, but there wasn’t much damage and it looked fairly normal.
As we were driving from the airport to San Juan we spotted the USS Comfort, a 1,000 bed Navy hospital ship docked in San Juan Harbor. The USS Comfort was being used to provide care to those with serious injuries and diseases.
Soon after arriving in San Juan and checking in at the Project HOPE headquarters, we were off to our base of operations in Ponce, the fourth largest city in southern Puerto Rico. It was north of Ponce in the mountainous regions where there was the most devastation.
Our medical team consisted of three physicians, three nurses, a pharmacist, two logisticians, and three drivers. The volunteers on my team were from different parts of the United States and one came all the way from Europe. There was no doubt that it takes a special kind of volunteer team to venture into a disaster zone with the main objective of helping as many people as possible.
We stayed in a rented house with most of us in sleeping bags on the floor – and we were too tired to care. Military prepackaged meals called “meals ready to eat” were our mainstay initially, but soon Project HOPE found a great cook at one of the local churches and the quality of our food improved dramatically. We spent our evenings preparing and packing medications and supplies for the next day.
The first three days were spent in the mountainous town of Utuado, one of the towns most heavily hit by the hurricane. Although the roads were paved, they were severely damaged and some were impassable because of horrific mudslides. There was no electricity or running water and many homes were washed away or damaged by the raging river waters. Once in town, we would set up our clinic wherever there was a safe and dry place. One day we set up in a community center, another day at the town hall, and one day in an open basketball court. We worked closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and they were invaluable in finding the towns with the greatest health care needs.
Project HOPE had outstanding standard operating procedures for our mobile clinics. Each day we would set up tables for nursing triage and other tables for the physicians to do exams. Pharmacy tables were filled with prescription and over-the-counter medications. In most towns, we treated about 100 to 150 patients per day. We took care of diabetics who, without electricity, were unable to properly store their insulin. Others were suffering from hypertension, asthma, rashes, infected lacerations, insect bites, respiratory infections, gastritis, congestive heart failure, and a few fractures. One day we even had a patient who was in full-blown cardiac arrest.
Each clinic site had a private area set up where psychiatrists could provide counseling. Our behaviorists were a blessing as many of our patients were in a mental health crisis. Some had lost their homes and all of their belongings and had nowhere to go. Others described their living conditions with mud everywhere and a vile stench emanating from their possessions. One patient was having flashbacks of screaming neighbors and gushing water. Another told his frightening story of swimming against the current trying to hold onto his child. Anxiety, stress, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts were not uncommon.
In all, we provided care in 14 different towns. Some days we split our time between urgent care clinics and shelters for those who were now homeless. The shelter visits were the most emotional for me. There were young children and the elderly sleeping in cots unprotected from the mosquitoes and flies. I thought about how these could be my grandchildren or my elderly mother. It was very sad to see them trying to survive in these overcrowded and somewhat unsanitary conditions. Nevertheless, the people were very pleasant and extremely thankful for our services. The children seemed healthy and enjoyed playing with the also homeless animals. They loved the coloring books and crayons given to them.
Although there was much damage throughout the island, some of the beaches were still so beautiful. Toward the end of my time on the island, I was wishing I could stay there forever. I guess I was feeling a little homesick.
Despite the destruction and the lack of electricity and running water, the people were resilient. They were ready to roll up their sleeves to help in the recovery in any way they could.
Although we were providing medical assistance to others, volunteering for this mission was like medicine for me. The sense of gratefulness has a special meaning for me now.
On the flight back to Boston I reflected on how I served in the US Army Medical Department for more than 28 years. Now this mission provided me an opportunity to serve my people in need in Puerto Rico. It was a very satisfying experience that I will cherish for a lifetime.