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Puerto Rico doctors only now discovering the problems in remote towns

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

JAYUYA, Puerto Rico -- After Hurricane Maria's landslides and flooding further isolated this mountain town, a volunteer doctor rushed to treat diabetic Brunilda Sovilaro, found on the floor of her home, covered in insects, unable to walk, disoriented and refusing to leave.

"You are sick. You are very hot," Dr. Jorge Lopez of Orlando told the 50-year-old woman. "Your sugar needs to be controlled. You have chest pain. It could be a problem with your heart. You need to go to the hospital."

Eventually, the Puerto Rico native who returned to the island from Florida to volunteer persuaded Sovilaro to board an ambulance to the nearby hospital.

"That lady was going to die if left there like that," said Lopez, who also volunteered after Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport, Miss., where he said the landscape was much less of a challenge.

Two weeks after Maria struck Puerto Rico, hospitals are still struggling, and many like the one in Jayuya are without electricity and communications, reliant on generators and running short of vital medications. As of Friday, 8,349 displaced people were still in 132 shelters.

Officials are worried about public health risks from the frayed medical safety net on the island of 3.5 million, and are trying to address hospitals' problems before they get worse.

Several Democrats in Congress spoke out this past week in Washington, calling on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to supply transportation to bring the ill, elderly and frail to the mainland.

"The reality of Puerto Rico doesn't allow for these vulnerable people, sick people, to stay in Puerto Rico and get the treatment that they need," said Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, D-N.Y., calling the situation a "humanitarian crisis."

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill. said that when President Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico Tuesday, he never made it to the mountains.

"The rain sent the mountains down upon the people through the rivers and washed away towns. There are no bridges, there are no roads. We should simply ask: 'Bring us your most infirm and sick,'" he said.

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