This past summer we all watched as three catastrophic hurricanes hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. Millions of Americans struggled to survive and put their lives back together in the aftermath and I knew I wanted to help, but I wasn’t sure how.
When my chapter president told me our national union was looking for nurses to join a relief mission to Puerto Rico organized by labor unions, I jumped at the chance. I had always wanted to contribute my skills and nursing expertise when our union organized trips during other disasters, but with young children at home I hadn’t been able to go. Now that my kids are grown, I felt it was time for me to go.
With the support of my husband, manager and colleagues at Heritage Valley Beaver Hospital, I prepared to leave for Puerto Rico in a matter of days. I left Newark, N.J. on a flight with over 300 union members, all strangers. My colleagues at Heritage Valley Beaver Hospital sent me off with a suitcase bursting with donations of medical supplies, new clothing and toys.
Before we left we were told to expect long days and rough conditions. I knew from watching television news coverage that there wouldn’t be electricity, and communications from the island would be unpredictable at best. Even expecting the worst, I was shocked by the conditions we found there.
For a lot of us, losing power briefly can be an inconvenience, but as nurses we know it can be deadly. Patients who rely on dialysis, oxygen or refrigerated insulin simply can’t get by without it. By the time we arrived in Puerto Rico, people living in the small towns and isolated areas outside the capital city of San Juan had been without power for a month with no relief in sight.
Given the confusion on the ground, donations were not always getting to all the people who needed them. One of the nurses on the trip started a Go Fund Me page to raise money for supplies. We all shared it with our friends and families back home and were able to raise $52,000 in just two weeks. We bought water and food wherever we could find it and took it into the small towns and communities outside San Juan.
Getting to those communities was a complicated process. Many roads were impassable due to downed trees and bamboo. The constant rain made everything worse, causing mudslides that washed out roads. Sometimes buses and trucks were no use when trying to reach the people who needed us the most. When that happened, we got out and walked, carrying water, food and medical supplies.
I can’t describe the living conditions as anything other than horrendous. In one town we visited, the flood water had reached eight feet and stayed there for a month. This left houses and buildings covered with mold. The flood waters were filled with dead animals, rats, feces and all the bacteria that comes with it. In each town we visited we set up a clinic where we could see patients and provide education, particularly about the importance of drinking clean water. We saw a lot of conjunctivitis, skin and foot infections, leptospirosis, respiratory issues and a few cases of cholera. For people already living in poor health that comes with severe poverty, these kinds of illnesses can be life or death. We did our best to treat those conditions on top of the high rates of diabetes and hypertension people had before the hurricane.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more tired in my life, but I wish we could have stayed longer. The people of Puerto Rico have largely been ignored and they need so much more help. Seeing the immense need, the tears from people who have lost everything, who are doing their best to manage in the face of unbelievable difficulties, makes me so glad I went. And ready to volunteer again in the future.
I went to Puerto Rico on a plane full of strangers, but I came back with a family. I will never forget the relationships I built with other union members from different places, different backgrounds and different jobs by working together to help people who needed us.
As nurses, we have a calling to help and heal. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to do that for our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico. If you would like to help you can donate by clicking here.