Amongst the destruction and chaos left behind in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands by the hurricanes, some of the direst is at the hospitals. Medical facilities are flooded, wrecked, filled with debris, and running off diesel generators to keep patients alive. Dire may not be a strong enough word.
The situation makes care for some of the neediest patients too difficult to manage. For the most critical, evacuation to the U.S. mainland hospitals is the only hope.
Among them is Cheira Ruiz and her baby girl Gabriellyz, who was born two weeks ago with a serious heart defect. The newborn was admitted to the Centro Cardiovascular de Puerto Rico in the capital shortly before Maria slammed into the island last Wednesday, but it was impossible for doctors to operate in such precarious conditions.
Gabriellyz was among the first infants cleared to take a medical flight out of Puerto Rico since the storm. Her parents, who live two hours south of the capital, found out the good news Friday when emergency officials knocked on their door in the town of Guanica and told them to pack for the trip to Miami. With phone service out, the doctors had called one of the island’s radio stations, which broadcast their plea for help in locating the couple.
Food, clean water, fuel, and electricity shortages are hitting everyone in the islands. But failure of generators at hospitals means the inability to run ventilators, dialysis machines, MRIs, CT Scans, monitoring equipment, and many other critical devices.
For hospitals across this region, the challenges are mounting. After the power went out, back-up generators at some hospitals failed quickly. Other hospitals are running critically low on diesel. Fuel is so precious that deliveries are made by armed guards to prevent looting, according to Dr. Ivan Gonzalez Cancel, a cardiovascular surgeon and director of the heart transplant program at Centro Cardiovascular.
“Another hospital wants to transfer two critical patients here because they don’t have electricity,” Gonzalez Cancel said. “We can’t take them. We have the same problem.”
Fuel is just the beginning. The cardiovascular center was “in shambles,” Gonzalez Cancel said. Without air conditioning, the walls of the operating room were dripping with condensation and floors were slippery, he said. Most patients had been discharged or evacuated to other facilities, but some patients remained because their families could not be reached by phone.
Doctors are advising evacuation to the mainland for anyone physically able. Patients and their families are being told to evacuate themselves, but the airport is in disarray. Without special orders or pre-existing tickets, there may be no seats out of Puerto Rico until October 4.
U.S. first-responders and military are arriving to help with recovery. They are doing their best in a remote land with poor infrastructure. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is setting up temporary medical facilities to help care for people.
But if hospital generators continue to fail or run out of fuel, the situation could worsen greatly still. There is nowhere that time is of the essence like this.