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Puerto Rican doctors from Minnesota to relieve exhausted island counterparts

A month after Hurricane Maria struck, Puerto Rican doctors who lost everything in the storm have worked themselves to the breaking point.

A month after Hurricane Maria struck, Puerto Rican doctors who lost everything in the storm have worked themselves to the breaking point. Miguel Fiol

The University of Minnesota’s Dr. Miguel Fiol was vacationing in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria made landfall one month ago.

The doctor and his wife had the option to escape, but they didn’t feel right about leaving the island. They decided to tough it out, abandoning their beachside apartment for a relative’s sturdier home inland.

By the time the winds settled, the island looked like it had been bombed. All the trees and streetlights had fallen. Smaller houses were laid to waste. The storm ripped away part of the roof of Fiol’s apartment, sweeping in sand and water.

The Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan, which had already been converted into a refugee center for Hurricane Irma survivors from throughout the Caribbean, quickly flooded with refugees. That’s where Fiol headed with other volunteer doctors and nurses to provide basic care for people with diabetes, asthma, and pneumonia.

Those with more extreme injuries were packed off to larger hospitals equipped with generators, where emergency doctors, cut off from communication with other parts of the health system, worked with dwindling supplies to the point of exhaustion as the lights flickered on and off.

“The problem is the lack of electricity, no communications, medications that have run out because they’ve been used up,” Fiol says. “One of the big fears that I had was epidemics. Because the water is stagnant, there are mosquitos, bacteria, other diseases that are waterborne. The water’s not clean, but people are using it for drinking, those who can’t get bottled water.”

He labored three days. Then his wife fell ill and the two returned to Minnesota, where he launched a fundraiser for insulin, antibiotics, asthma medications, dialysis equipment, and other supplies. It is hosted by the university, which unlike other crowdfunding platforms, will not take a cut of donations.

This Sunday, he will return to the island with four other Puerto Rican health providers working with the Coalition of Puerto Ricans in Minnesota – the Hennepin County Medical Center’s Dr. Eileen Crespo, Park Nicollet’s Dr. Eduardo Medina, Britton Center’s Dr. Serge Pierrecharles, and nurse Carla Velez -- to relieve local doctors for one week.

Medina, a “Newyorican” whose grandmother migrated to the mainland, says the group will focus on delivering aid to the small inland towns that have been hardest hit. He has extended family there who haven't been heard from since the hurricane.

He leapt at the opportunity to help because watching the slow-moving Maria descend on Puerto Rico was like torture.

“It was both really heartbreaking, but also just made you really angry,” Medina says. “As physicians we work in a field where we try to prevent as much illness and harm as we can. We should have been much more prepared with assistance … The lack of preparation here was not only negligent, but it’s bordering on inhumane.”

Though he’s never worked in a disaster zone without power or running water before, Medina expects to get by the old fashioned way, using his physical exam skills, his stethoscope, and his manual blood pressure monitor. Meanwhile, his colleagues in Minnesota have stepped up to cover his calls.

The group will stay in Fiol’s apartment, where there is no water or electricity.

As of Thursday, 80 percent of Puerto Ricans are without power and 70 percent of hospitals are working in the dark. More than half of all cell towers are down, and 30 percent of bank branches, with connected ATMs, are out of service, according to the government of Puerto Rico’s live updates. The official death toll of 48 is expected to rise as communication channels are repaired.