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They survived Michael but now lack health care basics

Elizabeth Koh, Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau on

Published in Weather News

PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- For days, Lorraine DePriest has been patching the hole in her abdomen with only toilet paper and clear packing tape.

They're the closest things to medical supplies the 55-year-old in Panama City public housing has after Hurricane Michael swept through and destroyed the small monthly stockpile of colostomy bags she has relied on for years.

When the storm's driving rain soaked through the bags she had and mildew crept in, DePriest washed and reused her single remaining bag until it became unusable five days later.

"I wasn't going to put mildew on this," she said, tapping the opening covered by wadded tissue and tape. "This is a desperate need right now. I don't care about anything else."

Patients like DePriest were already struggling to access health care before Hurricane Michael, but the storm has exacerbated those hardships into impasses.

Some need as little as a few dollars for gas to refill prescriptions at a pharmacy or get checkups before surgery. Others have doctors whose offices blew away or they need tanks of oxygen to breathe. Some patients, tending to their families, worry about scheduling appointments for children -- or prenatal checkups for mothers and babies yet to be born.

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What remains for them in Michael's wake is dread, doubt and an uncertain timeline for a return to normal health care.

It can take years for communities to recover from a disaster as devastating as Hurricane Michael, said Dr. Patricia Cantwell, a pediatrics professor at the University of Miami who has worked in disaster zones for more than two decades. In such all-encompassing emergencies, the intricate infrastructure of health care often shows some of the first and longest-lasting cracks.

"I can't begin to imagine the desperation people face," said Cantwell, who went to Panama City as a medical manager for the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 2 after Michael. " 'Where am I going to get supplies, where am I going to get water, how do I get gas to get there? Who's going to drive me?' Their whole means of being is just shot."

"An event like this can knock somebody totally out," she added. "Just medical transportation -- which is a challenge on a good day -- is astronomically worse after an event like this."

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