Just before 7:00 p.m. April 14, Ecuador was rocked by a 7.8-magnitude earthquake. The tremors were felt as far away as Colombia and Peru, but the bulk of the damage occurred in the Ecuadorian coastal regions of Manabí and Esmereldas. Within minutes, homes and commercial structures had collapsed to rubble, hundreds were killed and thousands injured. The final estimated death toll is believed to exceed 660.
Nelson Maldonado, M.D., a professor of neurology at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, was in the capital of Quito when the earthquake struck. Maldonado, who in 2015 became the first neurointensivist in the country of Ecuador following a fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine, said he first learned how devastating the quake was from friends in the United States calling to check on him.
“We didn’t have real news for about two hours,” Maldonado said, “so in the very beginning it was really nice to know that there was this support.”
That initial outpouring of concern would soon turn into help on a far larger scale than Maldonado could have imagined. With tens of thousands injured, the need for medical assistance was overwhelming.
“We were ready to go to ground zero with a group of physicians, because everyone who called said, ‘If you need help, we will be there,’” Maldonado said. While he and his colleagues initially discussed the possibility of physicians traveling to Ecuador to offer aid, they soon determined the best and quickest use of their efforts would be in collecting supplies.
“We don’t have a lot of big hospitals, and the big public hospitals are just in the biggest cities,” Maldonado said, adding that the coastal regions most affected by the quake are in dire need of supplies even in good times. “Before the earthquake we were already limited in our resources,” he said. Maldonado joined forces with Jose
Suarez, M.D., head of vascular neurology and neurocritical care at Baylor College of Medicine and stroke medical director at CHI St. Luke’s Health–Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and The Woodlands Hospital, to begin collecting medical supplies. Suarez, with whom Maldonado worked as a fellow at Baylor, had already been deeply involved in medical care in Ecuador prior to the earthquake.
“I traveled to Ecuador with Dr. Maldonado before he finished his fellowship to look at the situation there and see how we could best use his training to help the population,” Suarez said. “It became obvious that we probably need to do two things. One was to set up an educational program in the country to train physicians and nurses in our specialty so that patients who are critically ill could be better cared for.”
The other program Suarez and Maldonado have been establishing is a high-altitude research center to study neurological disorders and how the brain adapts to high altitudes. Both the research center and the education program were recently approved by the government—firsts of their kind in Ecuador.
When the earthquake struck, “we felt we had a social responsibility to help those affected,” Suarez said, given their existing involvement in improving the health of the country.
Suarez and Maldonado began reaching out to friends and colleagues in the Texas Medical Center and beyond, explaining their desire to collect supplies and medications to assist in the relief effort. They advertised through the Neurocritical Care Society and set up a donation page through CHI St. Luke’s Foundation. In just a matter of weeks they amassed a collection of supplies and donations far beyond what they had anticipated.
“The response has been truly overwhelming,” Suarez said. “We have collected over 40,000 pounds of supplies. Truly, we’ve exceeded our expectation by a huge margin.”
The pair were also able to team up with the university where Maldonado works, which Suarez said was a huge help in legitimizing their efforts.
“The medical school got engaged with us very early, and we thought that was a great idea because we had people that were truly committed—people who were going to be overseeing the delivery of all the supplies, the medications that we were going to collect,” Suarez said. “That gave us a sense of relief and more confidence that everything would work appropriately.”
Those who have donated or offered assistance include Cleveland Clinic, Duke University Hospital, Henry Ford Hospital, the University of Rochester, Stanford University, Diabetes Action Research and Education Foundation, Texas Children’s Hospital and CHI St. Luke’s Health–Baylor St Luke’s Medical Center, as well as numerous private citizens and students from various universities who raised money via GoFundMe pages.
Maldonado and Suarez are also partnering with United Airlines and Airlink, an organization that links airlines to humanitarian relief efforts, to coordinate the shipping of 40,000 pounds of supplies to Ecuador—not an easy task.
“The main issue now is all the logistics,” Maldonado said. “You need to coordinate with the government and some of the medications we want to share are controlled substances,” which requires working with the DEA.
The supplies are currently in storage at Baylor St. Luke’s McNair Campus as Maldonado and Suarez work out the paperwork and approvals required for shipping. Ultimately they will oversee the distribution of the supplies in Ecuador from the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, where Maldonado works, to the temporary medical centers set up in response to the earthquake as well as the main hospitals in Quito and Guayaquil, which have been taking in the most seriously injured patients.
“We will be working with volunteers, mostly students and medical students from Ecuador, who will be helping unpack all the material and then redistribute things and send to the places where they’re needed,” Suarez said. “We‘re planning on doing this maybe as an ongoing effort for the next year or so, to see whether we can actually get and send more.”
The amount of materials and the donations they have managed to collect will certainly make an impact on treatment and recovery post- earthquake, but they also have the potential to help far beyond disaster response in a country that often lacks medical supplies in the best of times.
“The amount of supplies that I have to work with is not even close to what I was used to when I was in the States training,” Maldonado said. “The whole medical system is in need of improvement—the quality of medications and the quality of medical supplies that they have. This is a project that is not just going to help the post-earthquake relief, but it’s going to help the country for a good long time.”