Northwell Health employees who returned from hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico late Thursday after a 15-day deployment to render medical assistance described an island still without basic necessities but found a resilient population making the best of a bad situation.
Northwell was among a contingent of New York hospital volunteers who went to Puerto Rico at the request of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Northwell’s team of 27 nurses, physicians, medics, EMTs and other clinicians and administrators embarked on October 12, unsure of their final destination. Once on the ground and able to assess areas of need, the volunteers split up. Northwell’s team was transported 45 minutes south of San Juan to HIMA Hospital San Pablo in Caguas, where they treated emergency room patients brought to their Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT) tents.
“Their patient census was well over what the hospital was built for,” said Randy Howard, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel who is vice president of operations at Huntington Hospital. He served as team leader in Puerto Rico. “They had hundreds of extra patients both in the emergency department and inpatient units. They needed some relief. In collaboration with eight volunteers from Albany Medical Center, we picked up the mission and provided 24-7 care for those patients and to assist that hospital."
The medical team arrived to a region that lacked power, running water and barely passable roads – three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall. While the hospital ran on generators and volunteers slept in tents outside the facility, the team provided top flight care and dealt with locals struggling to manage chronic health issues, from diabetes to dialysis. The team also provided assistance to patients out in the field and worked closely with the Army National Guard.
“Puerto Rico looked like it had been through a forest fire,” said Nicolas Hernandez, MD, who practices family medicine at Plainview Hospital. “If you’ve ever been there – a lot of green everywhere – all those trees were stripped bare. It was sad. I was there as recently as July for my birthday. It was a very different place.”
Obstacles extended beyond the obvious. Stacey Berroa, an RN at Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Medical Center in New Hyde Park, explained that understanding each patient’s needs was a challenge because there were no computers to pull medical histories from. It took painstaking interviews with patients and family members to decipher what was wrong.
For some, the mission became personal. Eddie Reyes, a Northwell Health RN and EMT lead instructor, discovered that his cousin, Hector, had suffered an aneurysm immediately after the storm and was recovering in the neurology unit at HIMA Hospital.
“This hit home as soon as we hit the ground,” an emotional Mr. Reyes told a pool of reporters at Northwell’s corporate headquarters on Friday. He grew up in Puerto Rico.
Several days into the deployment, Hector’s mother showed up at the hospital with a cardiac issue. “The nurses took care of her in our tent,” said Mr. Reyes, choking up at the thought. He then turned to his teammates and added: “You guys did a helluva job.”
The deployment was coordinated by the Greater New York Hospital Association and the state Department of Health in partnership with Northwell, Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York- Presbyterian, Mount Sinai Medical Center and Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in Manhattan, and Albany Medical Center.
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