Northwell volunteer team returns from Puerto Rico mission

Rebecca Klar
Team Leader Randy Howard, left, with four members of the Northwell Health volunteer team, Dr. Nicolas Hernandez, middle left, Eddie Reyes, middle right, and Stacey Berroa, right. (Photo by Rebecca Klar)

Two days after Hurricane Maria hit, Eddie Reyes and his family lost sight of one of their relatives living in Puerto Rico.

Two weeks ago when Reyes arrived on a bus as a member of Northwell Health’s volunteer medical team, he found his missing cousin Hector.

Hector had an aneurysm and unknown to the Reyes family, was sent to HIMA Hospital San Pablo in Caguas. The same hospital at which the Northwell team was volunteering.

“But when it rains it falls,” said the EMT.

During the team’s first week, Hector’s mother was also admitted to HIMA for cardiac care.

Through a radio, Reyes was able to communicate back to his family in the states to let them know how his cousin and aunt were doing. Ultimately, Hector and his mother were discharged.

“[Hector] is now in San Juan for rehab, which is a step up,” Reyes said. “His first words were the day he was discharged, and I was very honored to be taking him out.”

Reyes shared his experience as part of the Northwell Volunteer team on Friday, along with three of his fellow volunteers, Randy Howard, Dr. Nicolas Hernandez and Stacey Berroa, during a news conference held at Northwell’s New Hyde Park headquarters.

The four representatives of the 27-member volunteer team spoke just hours after returning from their two-week mission.

The volunteer’s responsibilities varied based on position, but they all shared one goal ­– to care for their fellow Americans.

Partnering with an eight-member team from Albany Medical Center, the Northwell volunteers took over an already established operation at HIMA to provide around-the-clock care for patients in need.

Members of the Northwell Health volunteer team in Puerto Rico.
(Photo courtesy of Northwell Health)

“Their census was way over what the hospital was built for,” said Howard, team leader, and former U.S Army Lt. Colonel. “They had hundreds of extra patients in the emergency department and in-patient units.”

Hernandez said the hospital was mainly filled with patients in need of care for chronic morbidities, such as patients seeking medication they had run out of and renal disease patients needing dialysis.

But the effects of the hurricane brought along additional complications to common diseases.

In one case, Hernandez treated a patient who was depressed after the hurricane hit and didn’t receive his dialysis. By missing dialysis the patient’s toe became gangrenous, and ultimately Hernandez and his team had to amputate part of the patient’s foot.

That “sort of trifecta” of mental health issues, common morbidities and complications from lack of treatment was common among patients Hernandez saw in Puerto Rico.

Hernandez motivation to go on the mission had personal ties, as it did for Reyes and Berroa. Although he didn’t grow up in Puerto Rico like Reyes, Hernandez visited Puerto Rico frequently. The beautiful island he knew now looks “like a scene out of a movie.”

“To see a palm tree completely bare is just not something you imagine in the Caribbean,” Hernandez said. “It’s just a force of nature that’s indescribable.”

From a physician’s standpoint, Hernandez said, the physical devastation of the island is tough because many patients don’t have a home left to return to once discharged.

Originally the team was set up in an empty office space in a medical building next to the hospital, but Berroa, a nurse from Long Island Jewish Medical Center, said a week into the trip the team relocated because it became too costly for the building to use the generator overnight for the volunteers. Half of the team was set up in tents, but as part of the night shift Berroa stayed in the basement where it was dark enough to sleep during the day.

Despite the harsh conditions, Berroa feels privileged to have been selected for the volunteer trip.

“We were there to serve the people of Puerto Rico just like we serve the people of New York when we’re here,” Berroa said. “It’s who I am. I’m in this [field] because I care about people and I want to take care of them. This was just another opportunity to do what I love.”

The feeling of gratitude was mutual between the team and the patients they served. Howard said wherever they went the team was met with thanks from patients, families and visitors.

While there is still much progress to be made in hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico, Reyes is proud and hopeful about the work his team accomplished in the last two weeks.

“Even if it’s just a drop in a big bucket,” Reyes said, “It’s [one more] drop.”

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