Six weeks later and Puerto Ricans on the island are still dealing with the damage from Hurricane Maria.
Eleven medical professionals from the University of Rochester Medical Center have just returned from a two-week mission trip there, hoping to help residents dealing with health issues.
While there, they worked out of tents, set up in a parking lot in the coastal city of Fajardo. According to Wendy Allen-Thompson, a registered nurse on the team, they helped over 2,000 people while there.
“For our complete two weeks, this entire team was living in tents and working out of medical tents. We cared for about 150 patients per day, every day of the week for 12 hours a day,” she said.
They had few resources, however, and had to deal with inconsistent generators, a bucket to collect urine samples and an IV to draw blood. But all 11 said it was more than worth it because the people were so grateful.
“Many times they were coming to the medical tents not because they had a medical problem, but because they were curious of us,” said Luis Rosario-McCabe, a registered nurse, who was part of the team. “Then it became they wanted to take care of us which was really kind of a reversal of roles. My heart feels like it grew ten times bigger just from that experience.”
“There was never a complaint,” said Allen-Thompson. “I got so many hugs. So many thank you’s.”
Aida Santiago is a nurse practitioner in the UR neurology department who was also part of the team. She says they saw many lower back injuries from people trying to clean debris or haul heavy loads of water and supply. Rashes and illnesses from the water were also common and although they helped about 2,000 people they know that many more people are in need.
“Who else is out there? How many more Puerto Ricans are out there who need healthcare but perhaps don’t have access to that tent where we provided it,” said Santiago.
“The ones that really stuck with me were the ones who had not been taking their insulin for weeks, their high blood pressure for four weeks, and came in with extraordinarily high blood glucose[s] and blood pressures,” said Rosario-McCabe. “They were there for medication refills but those visits turned into something much greater. We hospitalized many of them…we were doing things in an outpatient clinic that we would never do here in an outpatient clinic, in the US.”
“I don’t think wed be handle that devastation here,” he continued, meaning stateside. “It’d be too difficult for me.”
Long-term health issues will continue to plague the island as many with chronic illnesses and diseases are unable to find treatment and environmental issues exacerbate or cause new sicknesses.
“Long term care is going to be primary care, which they don’t have right now,” said Santiago. “We did a lot of medication refills and my first question was have you seen your primary care…and when was the last time you saw them? Over and over, ‘I saw my doc right before the storm and they’ve left and I’m not sure when they’re coming back.’”
The number of medical professionals who have left the island has increased the burden on professionals who stayed. Even if they can see a patient, they may not have time to do a full exam or dig deep into patient history.
All eleven said they're hoping UR sends another team soon.