Posted on Jan 9, 2019

Student’s Path to Nursing Weathers Hurricane Maria

Student’s Path to Nursing Weathers Hurricane Maria

With the destruction from Hurricane Maria a distant memory, USF College of Nursing graduate student Andrea Garcia can finally put the struggles from the past year in perspective.

Garcia, who is pursuing a master’s in nursing, started as a Bull Nurse this academic year — nearly a year after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico and also a year after passing up a chance to transfer to USF as a displaced nursing student.

Instead, Garcia returned to the University of Turabo in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, where she had just begun her final two semesters of coursework to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Luckily Garcia managed to fly out of Puerto Rico the morning Maria hit. But when she returned nearly two weeks later, she found a completely different landscape where residents were struggling with disaster recovery.

“Puerto Rico was an island that was bright and beautiful and full of green. And when you got there, it was like a ghost town. There was no green anywhere. All I saw were branches and trees on the ground. All the signs were on the floor. No street lights were working,” she said.

Ironically, it was her decision to stay in Puerto Rico post-Maria that gave her first-hand experience in community nursing and the public health challenges amidst a catastrophe. The adversity she faced sealed her commitment to stay on the path to be a nurse practitioner.

“After Maria, I got to discover the community aspect of nursing. I got lucky. I know Maria happened, but I got to learn so much and I got to see so much. You don’t realize how much you take for granted. And I couldn’t have gotten a better clinical experience, because Puerto Rico is so hands-on.”

Garcia, born and raised in New Jersey, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Montclair State University. But she decided to change careers and pursue nursing. In 2015, she moved to Puerto Rico and enrolled in the nursing program at the University of Turabo.

The school is a private university in Gurabo, Puerto Rico, that is part of the Ana G. Mendez University System, which offers academic programs in the U.S., including Tampa and Orlando.

When Hurricane Maria hit, Garcia said residents were still trying to recover from Hurricane Irma, which hit a week before. She was without power for about five days after Irma. Soon after getting power, she realized Hurricane Maria was a threat. She scrambled to find flights out of Puerto Rico, because she knew she was in no way prepared to ride out another hurricane.

 “The stores still hadn’t stocked up since Irma, so there were no batteries, no water. You couldn’t really prepare,” she said.

Garcia said she headed to the airport, hoping to find a flight. Everything was booked. She was ready to leave, when another passenger told her to wait, because she had heard the airline might add a flight.

The rumored additional flight came true, and she was able to take one of the last flights out of Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria came ashore. Garcia stayed with family in Tampa for nearly two weeks, before returning to classes.

Garcia said continuing her nursing classes in Puerto Rico was challenging. With no electricity or working generator at the school, the few remaining students went to class until dark. Instructors knew students had no power at home, so all coursework had to be completed with pencil and paper during daylight hours at the school.

With conditions so bleak, Garcia decided to return to New Jersey three weeks later, where she found a couple of clinical rotations and could finish the semester’s classes online.

She returned in January for finals and, in the spring, completed her last semester in Puerto Rico. Even then, five months after Hurricane Maria, she faced the possibility of a failed power grid daily.

One of the few bright spots was that students didn’t have to go far to find someone in need, she said. On Sundays, classmates would take water and food to people in the streets and would hold numerous fundraisers for students who lost their homes.

Looking back, Garcia says she is glad she returned to Puerto Rico, despite the hardships. If she had chosen to transfer as a displaced student, she would have had to start the nursing program from the beginning. And now she’s been given another chance at USF, this time in the master’s program.

“The experience we gained teaches you a lot. We were there without water, without power, with a curfew. It opened your eyes to so much. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to be a nurse practitioner, so it all worked out,” she said.

Story by Elizabeth L. Brown, USF College of Nursing