Volunteers are tired. Where’s our government in Puerto Rico?
By Dr. Jennifer McQuade, for the Houston Chronicle | on October 25, 2017
Four days after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, volunteer medical relief was critically important. But 33 days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, volunteer medical relief continues to be critically important to the island.
It should not be this way. This is not the job of volunteers or donors. This is the job of our government.
I have been intimately involved in providing medical relief for both Harvey and Maria for the past two months. When Harvey hit, I walked into the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB) and volunteered my services as a physician.
I am not a disaster medicine specialist. I am a melanoma medical oncologist at UT MD Anderson Cancer Center. But the people of my city were in need. Working in conjunction with the City of Houston Emergency Medical Services (EMS), I used social media to mobilize donated medications, medical supplies and volunteer medical professionals to meet the needs of the 10,000 or more evacuees sheltered at GRB.
By the fourth day, the Federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) came in to take over running the medical shelter. A Kroger mobile pharmacy truck and representatives from Walgreens and CVS set up as well.
This was as it should be, though at the time our naïve question was, “Why did it take so long?”
As Houston clinics and hospitals reopened, we turned our resources toward East Texas and Louisiana. This experience led me to create a group (Medical Disaster Resource Network) to match medical needs and resources in disaster areas. I never expected this network to be put to use so quickly.
After Maria hit, getting relief to Puerto Rico was more difficult than expected. It took us five days to establish a safe place to land and a trusted network to receive and distribute aid.
But our expanded grassroots medical relief network has now sent about 30 planes and 100,000 pounds worth of aid, including eight planes from Houston that I have been personally involved in.
Still, I ask: Why was a 50,000-pound donation from the City of Houston, sent on Oct. 5, the largest relief shipment Puerto Rico had received to date?
Thirty-one days after the Maria, why was the largest public hospital in San Juan losing power and requiring surgeons to operate by flashlight?
Why do I get verified messages about an orphanage running out of food and water and a mountain municipality that has yet to receive any aid?
Why does a physician drive 100 miles to San Juan every night for three days to get a cellular signal to talk to me to coordinate receiving medical supplies?
When the plane arrives and these critically needed medications are loaded into his van, he calls me crying, “Thank you — on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico — thank you.”
Why am I now working on my ninth plane of medical supplies for the island 33 days after the hurricane hit?
To be honest, I’m tired. We are all tired. This is not the job of volunteers or donors. These are American citizens who are suffering. This is the job of our government.
Most of San Juan has had power and water restored. Most of the rest of the island has not. We will continue to send medical relief for as long as is needed, but what is needed so that relief will no longer be needed is for critical infrastructure to be restored.
Dr. Jennifer McQuade is a physician-scientist with UT MD Anderson Cancer Center and founder of Medical Disaster Response Network.