People

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

In the five weeks since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, two local doctors have made it their mission to transport water, medications and supplies to their beloved homeland. With help from Carlos Beltrán and Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros—fellow Puerto Ricans who also happen to be in the throes of a magnificent baseball season—the doctors and a local group of Puerto Rican professionals have sent nearly a dozen planes packed with critical-need items.

Ricardo Flores, M.D., clinical director of the Cancer and Hematology Centers at Texas Children’s Hospital The Woodlands, was at work on Sept. 20 when the Category 4 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 moved from Puerto Rico in March, was also deep in his workday. Polo tried to stay informed 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.”

With sustained winds of 155 mph, Hurricane Maria uprooted trees, razed homes and caused widespread, catastrophic flooding.  Millions were left without electricity, water and cell phone service.

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 Beltrán and Carlos Correa

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. They 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 and Correa, both Puerto Ricans and star members of the Houston Astros baseball team, were in the midst of the most exciting season in franchise history when Hurricane Maria hit. Both had family back home and, like Polo and Flores, could not afford to lose focus on their work as they awaited word from loved ones.

When the supply drive exceeded expectations—they amassed nearly 2,500 pounds of donated medication 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 send two fully-loaded planes. 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, they’ve sent another 10 planes loaded with medication, generators, solar-powered lights, water filters, food and other items. Physicians from all over Texas have helped collect medical supplies in their different specialties based on specific needs voiced by 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.

The latest supply run on Oct. 5 was made possible by United Airlines, who took Flores and Polo, along with members of the Houston City Council, on a Boeing 777-300 so that they could personally deliver 55,000 pounds of cargo, food, humanitarian relief and generators. More than 200 seats 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 destination.

“I still don’t know how we did it—60 pallets with one forklift in 360 minutes. It was literally one pallet every 6 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.”

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; we feel proud and satisfied. 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,” Flores said.

The doctors plan on returning as much as possible in the coming months and eventually providing hands-on support at medical clinics and with specific rebuilding projects.

On the United flight to Puerto Rico, one of the Houston city council members who accompanied them on the trip described it 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 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.”

Flores and Polo plan on continuing their efforts indefinitely, understanding that the scope of devastation is still unknown.

“The island went back 100 years in the blink of an eye,” Flores said. “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. 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, they’ve brought close to 20 patients on their humanitarian flights back to Houston. Local hospitals have donated beds and are providing care, including chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

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 this past month. 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.”

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