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Puerto Rico’s Cleanup Hitters

Two local physicians join forces with two Houston Astros to lead relief efforts for post-hurricane Puerto Rico


By Alexandra Becker | October 26, 2017

This story was updated on Dec. 1, 2017.

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. With sustained winds of 155 mph, the Category 4 storm uprooted trees, razed homes and caused widespread, catastrophic flooding, leaving millions without electricity, water or cell phone service.

Ricardo Flores, M.D., clinical director of the Cancer and Hematology Centers at Texas Children’s Hospital The Woodlands, was at work when the storm hit his homeland. Flores had a busy clinical schedule that day and was trying not to worry incessantly about his family and friends back home. That proved impossible.

Just across the interstate at Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital, neurointerventional radiologist Mario Polo, M.D., Flores’ medical-school-buddy-turned-lifelong-friend who had just relocated from Puerto Rico in March, was also deep in his workday. Polo tried to stay informed about the hurricane through news apps and social media, and he and Flores updated each other throughout the day via text. Once the island’s power grid crashed, both doctors were inundated with frantic calls from their loved ones who were waiting out the storm and could no longer
watch the news.

“They were calling us and asking for an update because it looked so bad outside,” Flores said. “The way that they kept describing it was like a tornado that doesn’t go away. The sound was awful and everything was breaking.”

A few hours later, communication went dark. Flores couldn’t reach his mother for 10 days and Polo was worried sick about his 94-year-old grandmother, who was recovering from a hip fracture. Her nursing home had closed in anticipation of the storm, and his only solace was knowing that his uncle, a gastroenterologist, had taken her in.

“That was heart-wrenching,” Polo said. “Just knowing that they were without electricity, without water, without communication—and with a 94-year-old who needed 24-hour medical care.”

Texting Carlos Correa and Carlos Beltrán

As the media continued to deliver news of the devastation, Flores and Polo felt restless; they wanted to help. The doctors reached out to other Puerto Rican professionals living in Houston and together created the group Texas United for Puerto Rico. The group immediately started collecting relief supplies.

“The response we had from the community was incredible,” Flores said. “I texted Carlos Beltrán from the Astros. And Carlos Correa. [Beltrán] texted me back saying, ‘Yeah, we need to do something. I just donated a million dollars for support. I’ll let you know more.’”

Beltrán—who has since retired from Major League Baseball—and Correa were in the midst of the most exciting season in Astros history when Hurricane Maria hit. Both had family back in Puerto Rico and, like Polo and Flores, could not afford to lose focus on their work as they awaited word from loved ones.

But they wanted to help in any way they could. So when the supply drive exceeded expectations—Texas United for Puerto Rico amassed nearly 2,500 pounds of donations in just two days—Flores texted Beltrán and Correa again and asked: Can you get us a plane?

“We were naïve; we didn’t know the hurdles we were going to be facing,” Flores said. “But we realized right away that the main roadblock would be getting the supplies to Puerto Rico. People were amazing—the support we got. But getting it from here to there is a logistical nightmare.”

Beltrán and Correa contacted Astros owner Jim Crane, who agreed to donate the Astros plane for two missions. By Monday, Sept. 25, less than a week after Hurricane Maria hit, the group had sent thousands of pounds of goods to San Juan.

Since then, Texas United for Puerto Rico has sent another 12 planes loaded with medications, generators, solar-powered lights, water filters, food and other items. Flores and Polo are in a unique position because of their personal ties back home, which has proven beneficial in identifying what, exactly, the island needs the most.

Physicians from all over Texas have collected medical supplies in different specialties based on the specific needs voiced by the hospitals in Puerto Rico. UTMB-Galveston donated more than $10,000 in neurosurgical equipment. Carlos Correa’s family dug into their own savings to make numerous shopping trips to H-E-B for bulk food items. In addition to the Astros’ plane, flights were arranged by private donors, including Waste Management Inc. and Ross Perot Jr.’s Hillwood Airways.

A supply run on Oct. 5 was made possible by United Airlines, taking Flores, Polo and members of Houston City Council on a Boeing 777-300 so they could personally deliver 55,000 pounds of food, humanitarian relief and generators. More than 200 seats on the plane remained empty to accommodate the extra cargo weight. When the plane arrived on the island, Flores and Polo personally distributed the pallets to delivery trucks to ensure they reached their intended destinations.

“I still don’t know how we did it—60 pallets with one forklift in 360 minutes. It was literally one pallet every six minutes,” Flores recalled. “We were able to do it, but it was crazy.”

“The only thing we wanted was for our help to impact communities and make a difference,” Polo added. “Puerto Rico has 78 municipalities or towns, and so far, we’ve sent help to 22.” (Since this interview, that number has grown to 25.)

The group is proud of the progress they’ve made, but they hope aid is increased in general—be it through other relief organizations or government programs—so that theirs becomes a drop in the bucket.

“It is uplifting and, to some extent, we feel good about it,” Flores said. “But at the same time, the downside is that we wouldn’t like to be the group that is actually delivering the most medications long-term.”

On the United flight to Puerto Rico, a Houston City Council member described their conundrum perfectly: “We are the people we have been waiting for.”

Anticipating a public health crisis

Currently, Texas United for Puerto Rico has two separate warehouses in Houston filled with approximately half a million pounds of supplies. The group has set up a GoFundMe account for individuals hoping to help; the biggest need at this point is financial donations for planes, fuel and big-ticket items like generators—critical for an island that will be unable to fully restore power for months.

“They call us every single day and tell us of communities that are disconnected from the rest of the island,” Polo said. “It’s not that they are not receiving help from FEMA, it’s that the catastrophe is so huge, that what they are receiving is not enough. And they are begging for help.”

The island went back 100 years in the blink of an eye, Flores added. “You have the contamination of water and different food supplies. So we’re going to see the epidemics that we’re starting to see now—gastroenteritis, leptospirosis, conjunctivitis,” he said. “In developing countries, people don’t die from cancer or chronic diseases. They die from dehydration, from diarrhea. So this is what we will expect in Puerto Rico, and we’re already seeing it. People are dying from lack of essential antibiotics and things like that.”

In addition to the anticipated public health crisis, access to even basic health care has already become scarce. Numerous hospitals have been forced to close due to the power shortage and lack of fuel for generators. Diminished access to treatment—including dialysis, insulin, cancer therapies, medication and oxygen—has left thousands of lives in peril, especially the sick and the elderly.

Polo estimated that there are “tens of thousands” in situations similar to his grandmother: they survived the storm yet are now unable to get the medical care they need. He and Flores are doing what they can. Already, Texas United for Puerto Rico has brought back close to 25 patients on their humanitarian flights to Houston, and local hospitals have donated beds and are providing care.

Polo’s grandmother was on one of the flights. Dehydrated and weak, she was admitted to Memorial Hermann’s ICU for a week with a severe case of pneumonia and is currently living in a nursing home in The Woodlands.

“I know if she hadn’t gotten on that flight, she wouldn’t be here right now,” Polo said, adding that he will be forever grateful to the individuals who have donated their planes, their pilots and their time.

That generosity is what has struck the two friends the most these past months. The City of Houston, still reeling from Hurricane Harvey, offered access to their hub of relief supplies for those in need in Puerto Rico. And on the United flight, a fourth-grade teacher clutched letters from his students with messages of solidarity written in elementary Spanish: “We recovered, I know that you’re going to recover,” they said. “What we went through doesn’t even compare to what you’re going through.”

World Series champs

On Wednesday, Nov 1., the Houston Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 to win the World Series. With the cameras still rolling, Carlos Correa proposed to his girlfriend in front of 28 million viewers at home.

Hours before the start of the game, Houston meteorologist Eric Berger, whose Space City Weather website became one of the most reliable sources for weather updates during Hurricane Harvey, accurately forecasted that his beloved team would win 5-1: “Because, Harvey.” He later tweeted, “We knew. After Harvey dropped 51 inches, it had to end like this. After the darkest night, the sun always comes out.”

The day after the World Series, Flores and Polo landed in Puerto Rico. They spent Thursday at The University Pediatric Hospital in San Juan delivering donations for distribution. On Friday, they took a private helicopter to Salinas, on the southern coast, where they met with the town’s mayor and Correa’s maternal grandmother, Carmen Arroyo, who lives nearby in Santa Isabel. The group was interviewed by radio sports commentator Raul Cintrón, a local legend who lays claim to the first interview with Correa when he was just six years old. Cintrón told Flores that he recalled young Correa saying he wanted to grow up to be like Derek Jeter “because he’s the best, and he’s very humble.”

Listened to by locals religiously at noon each Monday through Saturday, “Hoy en los Deportes con Raul Cintrón” (“Today’s News in Sports with Raul Cintrón” ) is so popular, that by the time the interview concluded and the doctors and Arroyo started their tour of the town, nearly everyone they ran into had just heard them on the radio.

The World Series was all anyone was talking about.

“They have the curfew and they still went out and tried to find the few houses that had electricity and TV so they could watch it and make sure they won,” Flores said. “It was a great night for Puerto Rico for sure.”

While in Salinas, the doctors distributed enough food for 200 people, along with diapers, wipes and other supplies in high demand. They also visited the home of a 37-year-old patient who had suffered from hydrocephalus and complications from meningitis when he was a little boy. Defying a life expectancy of 1 to 2 years, the conditions left him mentally delayed, but he has found joy in life—and, specifically, baseball. He listens to Cintrón’s show every day.

“He’s a huge fan,” Flores said. “He knows all the baseball stats, he’s so good with numbers.”

The patient lives in a small house with no power, no water, and no bathroom. He has an aunt in Michigan who hopes to bring him, along with his mother and his father, to live with her in the contiguous U.S. After gifting the patient a Houston Astros cap and T-shirt, Flores evaluated him and determined that he was stable enough to fly on a commercial flight. He promised the mayor that his next big project was to coordinate transportation for him.

The doctors flew back to Houston on Saturday, bringing with them another patient, an 8-year-old girl with leukemia. Before the hurricane, she would have easily had access to the treatment she needed in Puerto Rico. But on an island that’s struggling to get basic supplies and services, her life could not wait. She is currently being treated at Texas Children’s Hospital in the Texas Medical Center.

Grain by grain

Puerto Rico’s needs are vast, and they are shifting daily. Correa’s parents, Sandybel and Carlos, Sr., speaking in Spanish as Flores translated, said that as the island is recovering, donations for medications and building materials are still critical. For now, they are focusing their efforts on collecting galvanized metal, wood panels and two-by-fours because it has been raining steadily and many homes are still without roofs.

“We understand that we can’t fix everything at once, but just contributing our own grain of sand, grain by grain, we think we’ll be able to make a difference,” Sandybel said.

Indeed, any gesture, no matter how small, helps the island’s uphill recovery.

Flores and Polo plan on returning to Puerto Rico as often as possible in the coming months and hope to provide hands-on support at medical clinics and with specific rebuilding projects. They will continue their efforts indefinitely, understanding that the scope of the disaster is still unknown.

“Every time we go there in person, it’s really devastating,” Flores said.

He recounted a story about neighbors in Salinas who were burning debris from the storm. A paint can, hidden in the pile, exploded, and burned a small child’s arms and face. Flores worries that if the child’s wounds get infected, he will die for lack of antibiotics and medical care.

“These things are happening and no one hears about them,” Flores said.

There are happy stories, too. In mid-November, Flores got word from JetBlue that the 37-year-old patient in Salinas would be flying to Michigan with his family later that month. Flores contacted Cintrón with an idea, and shortly thereafter, the devoted listener heard the news via his favorite radio show.

“His mom said that he started screaming like crazy,” Flores said.

If you would like to help the doctors’ mission, please visit gofundme.com/UnidosPorPuertoRico




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