Posted on Dec 5, 2017

A Mission to Aid Hurricane-Devastated Puerto Rico

A Mission to Aid Hurricane-Devastated Puerto Rico

Three USF Bull Nurses have returned from two separate medical disaster relief missions in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico – each witnessing the perseverance of survivors and vowing to return to the U.S. territory to do more.

Assistant Professor Jessica Gordon, PhD, ARNP, a native of Puerto Rico, spearheaded a week-long medical relief mission with four other health care professionals in November. The grass-roots effort was coordinated in collaboration with Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and helped nearly 400 patients.

In mid-November, USF College of Nursing PhD student Samia Valeria Ozoria Dutra, MSN, and Assistant Professor Ivonne Hernandez, PhD, RN, IBCLC, took part in the one-day medical relief and relocation mission Flight of Hope which transported critical medicines, generators, and supplies to hurricane survivors in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.

The two trips grew out of a desire to help victims recovering after Hurricane Maria slammed into the island in late September, leaving devastating images of destroyed homes, flooded roads and damaged schools.

Puerto Rico “looked like a war-zone.”

Gordon’s week-long trip began in Caguas, a city south of San Juan. The five-person team performed community and home health assessments in the neighborhoods where Gordon’s family resides before heading north to Vega Baja, a municipality in north central Puerto Rico. The communities are located near the coast, so vulnerable areas, including homes and agricultural farm land, suffered massive flooding.

Deidre Orriola, MPH, CPH, CLC, and Mary Unangst, IBCLC, volunteer to aid hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.

Once there, community leaders identified five districts in need of disaster relief. While the team worked mostly out of recreation centers and churches, they also made home visits and saw patients wherever the community gathered.

Gordon said seeing first-hand how residents were still trying to meet basic needs like access to running water and electricity more than 45 days after the Category 4 hurricane hit Puerto Rico was illuminating and recast her childhood memories in a different light.

“It was really devastating,” she said. “It looked like a war-zone, and that’s people telling us it looked so much better than it did before. You have that gut-wrenching feel for your people. You have this patriotic feeling.”

Since there was no reliable electricity and most communication lines were down, one community announced the upcoming disaster relief clinic by driving a van around town with a loud speaker.

One day in Vega Baja, the group worked out of a pop-up clinic inside of the El Right Field de Tommy restaurant, which served free rice and beans every Tuesday to storm survivors from hard-hit neighborhoods.

“You didn’t really grasp the devastation until we did the home visits,” Gordon said. “You hear their stories and you feel for them, and you’re certainly empathetic, but it didn’t hit me until we did the homebound visits.” 

It was during home visits where residents talked about sleeping on wet mattresses. Some showed high-water marks that stopped inches from the first-floor ceiling and described how floodwaters overcame homes within 15 minutes. Those who were bedridden and couldn’t swim had to be carried by survivors or floated on mattresses. One woman talked about how she had 70 people on her roof during the floods.

Seeing 300 patients in five days

In a report detailing their observations and experiences in Puerto Rico, the medical relief team saw nearly 300 patients in five districts within Vega Baja, including Los Naranjos, Sabana, El Ojo de Agua, Sandin, and the Silo Mision Cristiana Treatment Center.

Among the prevalent medical conditions the response team treated were directly related to the lack air conditioning and the increased use of generators, including asthma, upper respiratory infections, and reactive airway disease. The group also completed several medical clearances for children so they could return to daycare or school, and parents could look for work.

Jessica Gordon, PhD, ARNP, talks to hurricane survivors at a clinic in Puerto Rico.

Overall, living conditions in the U.S. territory were improving, but most basic services were sporadic. At the end of their trip, less than half of homes had electricity, about 90 percent of homes had running water, and nearly 60 percent of cell towers were operational, according to the disaster relief report.

Gordon said some patients were healthy, but stopped by anyway because of the need for socialization.

“They just wanted to come for the peace of mind, to understand, to be reassured that you’re OK medically,” Gordon said.

Gordon’s team included Lactation Consultant Mary Unangst, IBCLC, USF Public Health Educator Deidre Orriola, MPH, CPH, CLC, a paramedic, and Medical Technologist Federico Gordon. The group shared public health information, basic ways to prevent disease, and tips on purifying water.

Despite all the loss and suffering, many Puerto Ricans welcomed the chance to sit down, ask questions and gather information. At times, simply being offered a choice – like which color toothbrush they would like – made all the difference.

Mary Unangst, IBCLC, hands out supplies to hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico.

 “It was very empowering,” Gordon said. “It was a joyful experience. I have received a lot of hugs, gratefulness, kisses, attention, affection, affirmations. Through it all, with all the devastation, a majority of them are like, ‘Well, I’m still alive’.”

Flight of Hope

Dutra and Hernandez flew to Puerto Rico as part of the Flight of Hope mission, a one-day medical disaster relief and relocation effort organized by local employment agency K-Force.

The team brought much needed donations for hurricane victims, including 22,000 pounds of supplies, generators and medical necessities.

Once in Puerto Rico, volunteers unloaded the donations and split into two groups. Medical personnel saw patients at a local university, while others distributed hurricane-related supplies.

On the return trip, they helped evacuate 44 stable patients with chronic health issues who had family waiting for them in Tampa, Dutra said.

 “Definitely there was a need for a medical team on board the plane, especially to evacuate them, so we were glad to be able to represent the College of Nursing,” Dutra said. “It was really interesting to see how glad they were – being able to leave the island.”

Although it was a quick trip, they saw patients at the local university who described how they were still struggling to recover a month and a half after the hurricane hit, Hernandez said.

Some were sleeping in hammocks at home. Many were dealing with the void in communication and some instances of grief and depression.

“With the lack of news or knowing what’s happening or what’s going to happen, the uncertainty just continues,” Hernandez said.

Story by Elizabeth L. Brown, USF College of Nursing