Carnegie Mellon student charters 2 planes to deliver aid to Puerto Rico
One Puerto Rican doctor is asking for 40 batteries to power lanterns positioned around his MRI machine.
Centro Medico, one of the largest hospitals in San Juan, has been running on generators but needs a major resupply — everything from exam gloves, gauze and alcohol swabs to ventilators, oxygen tanks and catheters.
Rosana Guernica, a 22-year-old Carnegie Mellon University student from Puerto Rico, is eager to help. She has been communicating daily with physicians, family and friends on the hurricane-ravaged island.
She's heard stories about people who have died in recent weeks — not from the direct impact of the hurricane, but because they couldn't reach a dialysis appointment, drank tainted water or couldn't keep insulin refrigerated.
“It's still in crisis mode, and for many people it's getting worse — it's not getting better,” Guernica said.
“I'm grateful that my family is OK,” said Guernica, whose father, grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins live on the island and had access to personal generators. “I just know a lot of families who aren't.”
On Saturday, Guernica and a few fellow CMU students will board a 30-passenger chartered plane filled with 2,000 pounds of supplies headed to Puerto Rico to assist people with emergency medical needs.
Their goal is to reach mountain and coastal areas that have been difficult to access.
They plan to bring back 24 evacuees who have urgent medical needs.
Still in ‘triage mode'
More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck the Caribbean, about 90 percent of Puerto Rico's 3.4 million residents are without power.
More than one-third do not have access to clean water, with reports of at least a dozen people dying from drinking and bathing in creeks contaminated by animal urine .
An investigation by Vox and reports by several media outlets suggest the death toll is much higher than the official count of 45, with some rescue workers estimating that it could actually be in the hundreds.
“They're in an ongoing triage situation — who they can save, who they can treat because not all centers and clinics are open,” said Dr. Graciela Bauzá, 41, a UPMC trauma and general surgeon from Puerto Rico. “There's a lot of nursing facilities where they haven't been able to get the elderly out who are running out of food and water, who can't really transport to their primary care doctors.”
Hurricane Maria brought winds of 155 mph at landfall, flooded entire communities, disabled radar and cell towers and severely damaged electrical grids throughout Puerto Rico and neighboring Caribbean islands.
“One of their biggest concerns is that they don't have enough water to continue to clean equipment and stabilize it,” said Dr. Belinda Rivera, a pulmonary and critical care doctor at UPMC Presbyterian. “Even things that are off the shelf, like saline and different kinds of IV fluids, that is something that they are lacking at a lot of places.”
Nelson Colón, president of the Puerto Rico Community Foundation in San Juan, told the Trib that he's “extremely concerned” about disturbing reports of diabetics going into shock for lack of insulin, and a tiny mountain town that was isolated until last week whose families had begun to bury loved ones in their backyards.
“It's very difficult for mortuary services to get to places,” said Colón, whose foundation received $50,000 each from two of Western Pennsylvania's largest grantmakers, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
“The Puerto Rico basic system of communication collapsed. So now, what we are doing is creating corridors from east to west, just to get in contact with communities and assess the state of those communities and their needs.”
Roberto Clemente Jr. — who is from Puerto Rico and is the son of the late Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente — has been galvanizing support from nonprofits and businesses across Western Pennsylvania.
“We need the government to really step up. The rebuilding — that's not even really a topic right now,” said Clemente Jr., an ambassador for Arizona-based nonprofit Food for the Hungry.
“People are dying right now because their generators are shutting down, they're running out of diesel. My people from Puerto Rico need help. ... We need to help them right now.”
Doctors band together
Surgeons, anesthesiologists and executives from two of Western Pennsylvania's biggest corporate rivals, UPMC and Highmark's Allegheny Health Network, joined forces to contact hospitals, physicians and public health experts in Puerto Rico to determine the greatest needs.
“There's an overwhelming amount of scheduled surgeries that are delayed and have been canceled,” Bauzá said.
Bauzá, Rivera and about eight other local doctors obtained requests for thousands of supplies, among them abdominal pads, face masks, surgical instruments, scrubs, colostomy bags and insulin vials.
To fulfill the requests, they turned to nonprofit organizations that specialize in medical aid relief such as Global Links in Green Tree and Brother's Brother Foundation in Pittsburgh's North Side.
“You don't realize how important a suture is until you can't close wounds,” said Sarah Boal, director of medical missions and organizational initiatives for Brother's Brother, whose relief shipments in the past two weeks included 4,000 pounds of medical supplies sent by plane toward Bella Vista Hospital in Mayaguez and 100 tons of water to the U.S. Virgin Islands.
‘Two agonizing weeks'
Despite her looming midterms, Guernica stepped up to help soon after the Sept. 20 hurricane.
She sent hundreds of emails and called everyone she knew asking for donations. She raised $12,000 from her personal network.
She created a YouCaring page to collect donations, and got her professors involved. Soon, CMU's Heinz College, too, was soliciting donations from its alumni network.
As of Friday, Guernica's fund had climbed to more than $76,000 from 717 individual donors.
On Wednesday, a group of about 200 CMU students and alumni wrote a letter voicing their support for San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, a former Pittsburgher and CMU alumnus.
“For years, I've never met so many Puerto Ricans who lived here,” Guernica said. “It's really brought us all out of the woodwork, and we've been able to get together and build a community.
Saturday's chartered plane will mark Guernica's second humanitarian trip to Puerto Rico.
On Oct. 4, she spent her first $20,000 in donations to bring to the island 1,000 pounds of supplies — infant formula, D cell and AAA batteries, water, water filters, medicine and medical supplies — and brought back six evacuees.
They included Ferdinando, a 32-year-old with kidney disease taken to Yale Medical Center for dialysis treatments; and Roberto, a 91-year-old man who went several days without food and was living alone in a house blocked by storm wreckage from his neighbors and surrounding towns.
Also evacuated was Diana Flores, 79, who made it on the plane six weeks after learning her breast cancer had spread and treatment was not available.
Her son, Jose Daniel Flores-Caraballo, is a symphony conductor at the University at Albany who learned of Guernica's efforts and reached out. He recalled the sheer joy and relief he felt when he was able to Facetime his mother and father, who arrived on the plane in Fort Lauderdale with their poodle, Freddy, on their lap. It marked the first time he had made contact with them in “two agonizing weeks.”
“In her voice, I could sense a level of empathy and compassion that left me speechless,” Flores-Caraballo wrote in a thank-you note to Guernica. “(My wife) Dharma and I are moved to have experienced an act of kindness from someone we did not know.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.