Puerto Rico doctors only now discovering the problems in remote towns

Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Weather News

"If they had not come, it might have been different. They might not have stabilized him," said relative Jessica Torres, 41. "The mountains need more medical services."

Other volunteers who arrived in Jayuya this week agreed.

"There's been a good system of health care here, but it's basically collapsed. People have run out of prescriptions, doctors' offices and hospitals have closed," said Natasha Tobias, a registered nurse from Portland, Ore., who was volunteering at the hospital through the Kansas City-based nonprofit Heart to Heart.

While the Jayuya hospital and others her group assisted in the mountain town of Barranquitas and south of San Juan in Caguas were still open, they were also seeing steady demand for care weeks after the storm.

"As the roads open, people are coming down and we're seeing more trauma," from more remote mountain areas, she said. "... We're all pretty worried this will turn into a bigger crisis as time goes on."

Across town, diabetic mother of two Esha Garcia was running out of insulin.

Garcia, 33, said the medication was covered by Medicare, but the local pharmacy computers were not working since the storm and they wouldn't refill her prescription. She uses four vials of insulin per month that cost $400 each and a $600 insulin pen each night. She had one vial and one pen left Wednesday.

"If I don't get the medication I need, I'll have to go to the hospital," she said.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services activated its emergency drug assistance program in Puerto Rico that covers the cost of prescriptions, medical supplies, equipment and vaccines after a disaster. It wasn't clear how soon that could help people in the island's interior.

Jayuya's hospital, with its staff of five doctors and nine nurses, saw 78 more patients the week after the storm, 310 total, according to emergency room administrator Joanna Morales. So far, only one patient has died since the hurricane, a man struck by a landslide. But their treatment had been limited, she said. They were running low on diesel for their generator. Without an additional generator, they couldn't operate respirators or portable chest X-rays. And they needed to resupply basic medications and equipment, including oxygen tanks and insulin.

"Every day we see patients who come in without oxygen and we have to admit them," said Dr. Lourdes Rodriguez, who traveled north from Ponce to volunteer at the hospital after the storm.

The Puerto Rico National Guard had promised to come set up a temporary hospital outside with a team of 10 doctors, but had yet to arrive, she said.

The volunteer doctors had to leave after about an hour, bound for several other mountain towns, including Lares, Morovis and Orocovis. U.S. Army Rangers would return the following day with a generator and other requested supplies, they said.

"The focus today was the most isolated areas," said former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello, who was traveling with the group.

Novello was working on a vaccination campaign set to begin Friday across the island to protect against mosquito-borne diseases. She also hoped to distribute donated treatment kits for the same illnesses.

After about an hour, the team returned to the helicopters, unloaded several boxes of much-needed medicine for the hospital, distributed food and water to a waiting crowd of families and prepared to take off.

"We don't waste time," Novello said. "We can't."

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