My Eye Witness to Puerto Rico’s Health Care Crisis

Posted on August 17, 2018 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

AKA My Mom’s Visit to the Hospital

By Teresa A. Santiago

Catholic Charities NY Spanish Media Consultant &  Estoy Con Puerto Rico Board Member

When my 90-year old mom got sick and was admitted for day and a half at the Doctor’s Center Hospital in Manati, a town two hours away from Isla Verde where we were staying, I experienced first-hand the broken health care system Puerto Rico is left with after Hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the island last year.

What an eye opener!

The hospital did not provide the basic essentials associated with comfort for the sick, items as simple as pillows, blankets or bed sheets. It provided 2 paper blankets and one meal a day served in styrofoam receptacles. It was interesting to see people walking into the emergency room with suitcases like it was a hotel.

How We Wound Up Here

I work as a Spanish-language marketing consultant for Catholic Charities and, for the past twelve years have also participated in the organization, Comité Noviembre’s, (CN), trip to Puerto Rico: “Buscando Nuestras Raíces,” an educational adventure into the richness of Puerto Rico’s culture, ancestral roots and history.  Over the years, it has surpassed my expectations making this trip not only an educational and cultural experience but an opportunity to support, sponsor and empower many humanitarian, environmental, cultural and social justice organizations and issues.   This year, our trip became CN’s second humanitarian mission to Puerto Rico taking on a new charge and an important call to action.

As one of 52 participants of this trip, I did volunteer service throughout the island from planting trees and seeds at Siembra Tres Vidas in Aibonito, removing debris, gardening and patching roofs in Dorado/Vega Alta with Hunger Corp., assembling and delivering 350 backpacks with school supplies and books for their library to La Escuela Jesús Sanabria Cruz in Yabucoa, to distributing greatly needed items to 30 families in Comerio that still do not have electricity; to cleaning elderly homes and apartments with Ráfaga Solidaria in Orocovis, Naguabo and Aibonito.  I also volunteered at Feria de Salud: Feriarte: Arte, Salud y Cultura; a health, wellness and mental health fair with a culture and arts twist in the town plaza of Bayamón.

Estoy con Puerto Rico & Catholic Charities NY

During this trip we also visited and presented grants and equipment to non-profit organizations and small businesses from funds raised through the Estoy con Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief effort, which Catholic Charities NY is the fiscal conduit and partner.  The grants range from assisting small businesses and micro enterprises open for business again, to special programs created to help the community deal with mental health issues arising from the aftermath devastation of Hurricane María including depression and suicide prevention programs, to transforming areas of a facility into dormitories for displaced University of Puerto Rico students, assisting the forgotten elderly community and making donations to food pantries.

What became clear throughout our trip was that Puerto Rico’s recovery and rebuilding efforts after hurricane Maria are going to take years to accomplish. The devastation from the hurricane was the crippling blow to the island $72 billon dollars in debt with a health care system in crisis and an island left with the most vulnerable of the community the poor and the elderly.

Back to My Mom

I brought my mother with me on this trip since it would likely be her last chance to return to the island where she was born.  Unfortunately, during our visit she began to have difficulty breathing.  We rushed her to the hospital. 

The staff, while very friendly to patients especially the elderly, are overwhelmed and over worked.  There were about 200 patients 3 beds deep lined up against walls, corridors anywhere a bed could fit. There were only 2 emergency room doctors on call for this multitude of people, struggling to keep their cool as they examined patients who have been waiting anywhere from 8 to 12 hours.  They slowly but surely emptied out the emergency room.

Because of my mom’s age the decision was made to keep her overnight to do an MRI.  It is interesting that no IV or heart monitor was put on her, something that is routinely and automatically done in the States.  Her other tests - CATS Scan, blood, brain, sonogram - came back normal

But the only test that would rule out a stroke would be an MRI so I asked why the MRI was not done first? I got no response.  It was already 11:30 PM. All day long I was receiving texts from people traveling with us on the trip wanting to know how mom was doing.

Knight in Shining Armor

A little after midnight Steven Feliciano, the founder of Hunger Corp., came into the emergency room like a knight in shining armor bringing us pillows, comforters, a jacket, food, and toiletries. I had never been so happy to see anyone.  He said he heard I was still in the hospital and knew I needed help.

The Comite Noviembre group was doing volunteer service in the La Hormiga community in the town of Dorado.  I was priming and painting walls in one of three houses assigned to us by the Hunger Corp., the nonprofit we were working with.  So when we broke for lunch and mom got sick I had more paint on me than on the walls.

No Guarantees & No Response

At 4 AM, mom was assigned a room. A doctor came in at 9 AM and said MRI was ordered but could not guarantee when it would be done. Soon he hoped.  The test was not done until 4PM. At 5pm a neurologist came in to see mom I asked him about MRI he said results were not in yet but all other tests were normal.  He said he was leaving for the day and that mom would have to stay in the hospital one more day, perhaps two, to get the MRI results.

I kind of lost it at that point and told him my mom was not going to stay in the hospital another night because there was no other doctor to give us the results of the MRI.  The doctor who admitted my mom was also called and he was also gone for the day.  At that point I signed my mother out of the hospital with the judgmental disapproval of doctors and staff and took an Uber back to San Juan.  For 7 days I called the hospital to get results and no one responded to me.

Mom, on the other hand, did not skip a beat. She returned with us to all our scheduled locations. Everyone took care of her – it takes a village.

Why Is This Such a Mess?

I found out several things as I recounted my experience to my fellow trip participants and island residents.  I was told that tens of thousands of skilled Puerto Ricans, many of them in the medical profession, are leaving the island in droves annually. They are heading stateside where they can practice medicine with current state-of-the-art equipment and save lives. Doctors are leaving because if they stay they will never be able to pay off their medical school loans because of the low salaries offered.

Additionally, the lack of services is due to Puerto Rico’s health care crisis and government debt.  According to Shanoor Seervai’s article: How Hurricane Maria Worsened Puerto Rico’s Health Care Crisis, in the Commonwealth Fund published in December 2017, Puerto Rico is shouldering a disproportionate share of health care costs—for U.S. citizens who are particularly financially vulnerable and in poorer health when compared to those on the mainland. This, combined with the devastation of the fifth largest hurricane to ever hit the United States and Puerto Rico’s debt of $72 billion, makes it difficult for the island to invest the resources it needs for its health care system to recover.

This is why the Comité Noviembre, with the funds raised by the Estoy Con Puerto Rico effort and Catholic Charities NY as fiscal conduit, made donations to the following health and mental health nonprofit organizations that serve the elderly, children, people with HIV/AIDS and the most poor and vulnerable of the community: Asociación Superación Niños Síndrome Down, Caritas de Puerto Rico. Centro de Salud Ararat, Circuito de Innovación y Resiliencia Queer, Espacio Rio, Feria de Salud/Feriarte, Fundación Stefano, Healing Energy Center, Health Pro Med, Initiativa Comunitaria, Healing Brigade, Ponce Health Science University/Mental Health Center, PRConCRA, Radio Vieques, Salud Acupuntura Para el Pueblo, Inc., Suicide Prevention Center/University of Puerto Rico Cayey, Superheroes, and Taller Salud.

This Is Personal

This trip was extremely personal and emotional for me. I met extraordinary people that are taking their life situation, their future, into their own hands, with no government assistance and creating a new society based on the needs of the people and community.  They are from all walks of life, professions, education levels coming together to develop short and long-term solutions for their communities.  And what I absolutely loved that everyone, no matter how young or old, has a role in this new Puerto Rico.  Truly inspiring, impactful and revolutionary.

Please help us continue to help rebuild Puerto Rico. Donate to Estoy Con Puerto through its fiscal conduit, Catholic Charities.

  • Make your checks payable to: Catholic Charities/Estoy Con Puerto Rico and mail to: Catholic Charities/Estoy Con Puerto Rico, 1011 First Avenue, 11th floor, New York, NY 10022.