By Jean Andersson-Swayze
Jean Andersson-Swayze is a physician at Middlebury Family Health in Middlebury. She lives with her family in Charlotte.
Last week, as a member of Heart to Heart International’s Disaster Response Team, I travelled to Jayuya, Puerto Rico. Heart to Heart, a non-governmental organization based in Kansas, has been sending medical volunteers to respond in Texas—where I deployed in September—Florida, and Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and, most devastatingly of all to Puerto Rico, Maria.
Maria slammed into Puerto Rico as a category five hurricane with sustained winds of over 175 miles per hour, and estimates range between $45 and $95 billion for the island to recover. Having been there, it is easy to see how those estimates are true.
Everywhere we went was a constant reminder of Maria’s fury: downed power lines, destroyed homes, smashed cars, mud slides, de-vegetated trees, plants and hillsides, no power, communication systems across the island impaired, and a severely damaged water system. It looked like the whole island had been in a tornado’s path. Nothing was left unscathed.
Yet, there was also plenty of hope. Hurricanes there are common (although the island has never seen hurricane damage like this) and many people have generators, cisterns, and live in cement homes built to withstand powerful storms. Even in the seven days I was there, buds started growing on ravaged trees and plants—a tropical climate and nature’s resilience breaking through.
Our team’s focus was to get inland to smaller, more remote towns. While all of Puerto Rico was hard hit by the hurricane, due to the lack of cell service and power it was almost impossible to know what the medical needs of these communities were without physically going there. The inability to communicate made coordinating this work very challenging.
The road conditions were another trial. I have never driven in such challenging conditions; traffic lights don’t work and power lines are down everywhere. Puerto Rico has been hard at work trying to get roads cleared, but it continues to be a Herculean task, further complicated by continued rain and de-vegetated hillsides, meaning mudslides are common and likely to increase.
One of the biggest medical challenges that we found was lack of access due to the lack of power. Doctor’s offices were closed, pharmacy hours were significantly limited, access to laboratory services were limited, and access to patients’ medical and insurance information, most of which is computerized, without wifi/internet is non-existent. The lack of a functioning water and sewer system across the island means that people, especially in more remote areas, are drinking from mountain streams or collecting water from destroyed pipes. The potential for waterborne illness from drinking contaminated water is high.
It took four hours of driving to reach the mountain town of Jayuya, population 17,000, a 60-mile drive complicated by road closures, landslides, and downed power lines and trees. When we arrived at the Centro de Salud, we were met with open arms. Our team was given some rooms to work out of and we immediately started treating patients.
The hospital is usually staffed with one doctor at a time who comes in from the cities to work 48+ hour shifts, taking naps when he or she can. The doctor who had been working during the hurricane reportedly worked 90 hours straight. We were so touched by the warmth of the community, Puerto Rican doctors, nurses, EMTs, and administrators in this facility who welcomed us with open arms.
People from the community showed up frequently, offering to volunteer and help in any way they could. Any reports that Puerto Ricans are expecting to be helped and not willing to do the work of recovery themselves is a gross falsehood. The island is struggling, people are suffering, and there is compassion, hard work, and camaraderie everywhere you look.
Please do consider donating to organizations such as Heart to Heart International responding to this disaster. Please put pressure on your representatives to prioritize responding to and facilitating recovery in Puerto Rico. The island needs help, and will for a long time to come. The damage is extensive and overwhelming. This requires a long-term coordinated and collaborative response.