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This October, four Edward-Elmhurst Health employees stepped up to provide medical relief in the aftermath of the September hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico and parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The intense winds and rain left many roofless buildings, downed power lines, roads blocked or washed away, more than 1 million square yards of debris and limited access to healthcare.
Nurse Camrai Damore and respiratory therapist Mark Puknaitis, who both work in Edward Hospital’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit, completed a 10-day stint in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Elmhurst Hospital cardiovascular nurses Esmeralda Cortez and Maria Soriano joined a one-week relief mission in Puerto Rico, which experienced its worst hurricane in a century.
Cortez and Soriano started their week in a makeshift hospital located in a sports complex in Ponce, a small town outside of San Juan. They traveled to communities where they provided care at shelters and in private homes.
Soriano says one of the towns they visited was Utuado, a mountain area that had been isolated for two weeks because mudslides blocked the roads.
"The lack of infrastructure and transportation in many of these areas delayed access to healthcare," says Soriano. "It was good to see the young people in these communities taking the initiative to help clear obstacles. We also had a military escort to ensure the roads stayed passable."
Says Cortez, "A lot of people hugged and thanked us before we even began doing anything for them. One woman said, 'I appreciate people who write checks, but it really says someone cares when they are willing to leave their families to come here and help us.'"
Cortez said she saw a lot of patients who had chronic conditions that were getting worse because they hadn’t been able to see a doctor or get refills on their prescriptions.
"One man had a blood pressure over 200 and a woman I saw had a blood sugar of 400," says Cortez. "They both had been rationing their medications – taking them every couple of days – and sometimes skipping meals. It’s hard to see people who could be helped with good prevention, but their options are limited."
The Puerto Rican mission, which was sponsored by the Syrian American Medical Society, included about a dozen physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners and a social worker.
The St. Croix team had a different role — working with AeroCare, a provider of medical evacuation and transport services hired by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).
Damore and Puknaitis were on stand-by to help AeroCare transport seriously ill patients to the U.S. mainland for care. They helped with ambulance-to-plane transfers and accompanied the patient and family member on the flight, which was on a jet equipped like an ICU (Intensive Care Unit).
AeroCare called Puknaitis to care for a stroke patient in her 60s who would be flown to an Air Force base in South Carolina for care. Her condition was deteriorating because she hadn’t been able to access care until two or three days following her stroke.
"I was on hand during the flight in case she needed a respirator or cardiopulmonary support," says Puknaitis. "It turned out she was able to get by with a little oxygen and some medication. At the end of the flight, I helped transfer her to the ambulance in South Carolina and then flew back with the crew to St. Croix."
Another pair of Edward Hospital employees — nurse Nermine Dauti and respiratory therapist Jason Thomas — were scheduled to leave for a mission with AeroCare after Damore and Puknaitis returned, but that trip to St. Croix was cancelled because there wasn’t a plane available.
Damore and Puknaitis said they did see some progress in the area’s recovery during their stay. Damore said when they first got to St. Croix and looked out from the decommissioned cruise ship that was their base, they only saw two lights.
She says, "By the tenth day, we saw more and more lights — there was still no public access to electricity, but generators had been brought in."
"We saw a lot of work like that happening and a lot of volunteers," says Puknaitis. "You don’t always hear about that."
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