Going Home After Hurricane Maria
Living in Puerto Rico most of my life, I’m used to the nightly greeting of the little frogs called coquís.
But this time stepping off the plane felt different. The hum of generators and the smell of gas and diesel filled the hot, thick air.
I went to the Bantiox Clinic in Levittown, 25 minutes west of San Juan, in the north coast of the island. Two Army National Guardsmen were posted on the entrance.
The clinic opened in a former Head Start school site near the center of Levittown nine days after Hurricane Maria. It is run by volunteers, many of them students from the University of Puerto Rico.
“I’m the leader of the medical interventions in the community so what I do almost everyday is basically house calls,” Christian Rodríguez, a volunteer doctor in his 30s, said.
He has short, dark hair with some gray on it. He’s wearing a black scrubs with jeans as he’s about to make some housecalls.
“After the hurricane there was a lot of elderly patients and bed ridden patients who weren’t getting their medical attention so we would go house to house and find these patients. And we didn’t have communications during the first couple of weeks so basically I would go to the communities and ask around,” Rodríguez said.
Dr. Rodríguez recently finished his degree in medicine in another island. He grew up in Puerto Rico and he came back to help after the storm.
“I alone found approximately 5 patients who had suffered strokes during the hurricane and they haven’t had any lab work or anything, no CT Scan because they didn’t even know they had a stroke. It was a little intense and it was kind of hard to think that that was happening in my hometown,” Rodríguez said.
For Dr. Rodríguez, coming back to help was never a question.
"What keeps me going? I don’t know man this is home. You try to take care of your home. And when you see your community in need and half of the medical personnel has left-- we don’t even know how many doctors we lost after the Hurricane," he said.
The clinic has seen more than 4,000 patients since its opening. Inside there are cubicles made out of gurneys piled on top of each other.
Dr. Ingrid Carter, a volunteer doctor from Florida, sees Ana Hilda, a short woman in her 70s. She is a diabetic who came to the clinic after developing lacerations on her right foot. Her house survived but most of her neighbors are struggling to take out more than three feet of mud accumulated inside their houses after the water from a nearby river made its way in.
Dr. Carter has been to different countries and have assisted in crisis as a traveling physician. But this clinic feels different for her.
“To be honest I’m amazed at the resources this clinic has available. I’ve never seen such availability of medications for patients,” Carter said.
The hurricane season in Puerto Rico ended on November 30. But there’s still uncertainty in the island. Streets get flooded every time it rains. Debris still clugs the sewers and people have to walk in knee-deep water. It’s a struggle to drive a car from one side of the street to another.
But the rain cannot keep doctors doctors like Christian Rodríguez from this clinic.
“It’s in moments like this that all the things I learned back in school, maybe in high school come back to light and you realize this is the moment where you have to take care of your community because no one else is going to do it,” Rodriguez said.