Frontline VNSNY Exclusive: VNSNY’s Alicia Schwartz, RN, Reports from Puerto Rico on the Hurricane Relief Efforts
Alicia Schwartz, RN, a Care Coordinator with VNSNY CHOICE Managed Long Term Care, traveled last week to Puerto Rico, where she was born and raised, to help in the post-Hurricane Maria relief effort. This is her firsthand report, given to our writer over the phone.
I came down here with the teacher’s union. The United Federation of Teachers wanted some nurses to join their mission to Puerto Rico and assist in the disaster. I arrived here on Wednesday, October 11. We started out with over 300 people from the union, including nurses, doctors, and also plumbers, electricians, truck and van drivers, and people with machetes to help clear the way where the roads were blocked. We split up into small groups, with a doctor in each group and nurses divided by specialty—hospital nurses to visit hospitals, and home care nurses like myself to visit people in the community.
Our driver knows a lot of the towns around here, so the first day we headed out to a very poor town outside San Juan, where many homes and buildings had their roofs blown off. We went with him to an area where there are a lot of elderly people, and we set up a clinic there. We handed out medications, because all the pharmacies are closed, and we checked people’s vital signs and handed out food and water. The following day, we traveled to a nursing home run by a group of nuns, who were feeding the community. They were on their last day of food, so we arranged to get them resupplied with enough food to last them a while. They also have a well they were using to supply water to the people in the nursing home, but it was very hard to get water from it, so we got some plumbers from our group to fix the well for them.
The next place we went to was a town called Rio Grande. There was a relief operation set up in a community center, and people were standing on line outside. There were 500 people out there in the heat, with no water or medications, for several hours, and people were starting to get ill. Some were fainting. So we set up a clinic and started treating them. There was one woman who had fallen right after the storm. When she arrived at our clinic, we could tell immediately that her shoulder was dislocated. The hospital she had gone to first had no power, so she didn’t get any X-rays. It was already three weeks since she’d injured herself, so we called the ambulance and had her taken to a different hospital.
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The following day we went to a town called La Playa de Huaco, next door to where the eye of the storm hit. The town is completely destroyed. It was an area where no one had visited yet, so the people hadn’t gotten any water or any food. We set up a clinic and went house-to-house teaching people about preventive health, including not drinking the standing water, which can carry deadly disease. Because there’s no running water, they’re unable to clean their clothes, and can’t shower the way they would like. One man we visited had lost his whole home, but he told us he was happy because he had his life and that was the most important thing. We provided him with food for the next few days and gave him medications he needed. We brought food to another man and he began to cry, he was so overwhelmed.
We moved on to another town that the hurricane had hit directly, and visited a man whose roof was completely gone, so the daily rains were coming into his home. He said to me, “Sometimes I feel like getting a rope and hanging myself.” That’s how bad it is here. No fresh water has been getting to these people. We delivered food and treated patients for various conditions. On the drive back, we saw more people in the road getting water from springs, and so we had to stop and educate them, explaining that they need to boil the water first.
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Yesterday, we went to an area where three or four families were living who could not get out through the debris. So our group began clearing out the road. After they did that, another nurse and I walked up. An elderly woman was there with her bedridden son. He was paralyzed from the waist down, and had gotten an infection. We provided treatment, and gave them water and food. Now that the road is clear, other people can get up to them as well.
A woman today told me the National Guard came in with water, but when she asked for some water they had run out, so she didn’t get any. She said, “I don’t make a lot of money, and I’ll have to go into town tomorrow to buy water.” So we gave her money so that she could get water. Another woman told me, “I haven’t spoken to my family since the storm.” I asked for the family’s phone number and dialed it on my phone. A family member answered, and the woman started speaking to them and crying. I was standing with our driver and a social worker from that town, and the three of us started crying too. It’s just very sad what we’re seeing.
I worry that these people are going to die from high blood pressure and diabetes because they can’t get their medications. Their pharmacy is closed, and if they have to go to another pharmacy, because they’re not from there, they’re going to have to pay—and these people don’t have money. The amount of staff we have is very small, but these people need our help, they need to know someone is here. There is a sign in one town I visited that says, “If you need assistance, please call this number.” But guess what? They don’t have phone service up there.
We’ve gone through a lot and seen a lot. I was with a doctor and we visited an elderly family whose bedroom and kitchen and bathroom still have a roof but the windows are blown out, and everything was wet. It was so hard for us to operate inside the house. We could see lightning already starting at that hour, and they are going to get wet again in the rain, but the woman refused to leave—she said, “It’s the only place we have.”
We’ve been able to help many people, but it’s not enough. We try do what we can, but there’s many people that we can’t reach. That’s the sad part.