Hurricane stresses Puerto Rico’s already weak health system
But five days later, the 26-year-old cook was still waiting because only a fraction of the operating rooms were available due to an island-wide breakdown in the electrical power grid caused by the storm. He finally got the surgery and the hospital said he was on the mend Friday — but the same can’t be said for Puerto Rico’s badly stressed medical system.
“Thank God I’m fine, I’m getting better,” he told The Associated Press in an air-conditioned medical tent set up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on the grounds of Centro Medico. “But Puerto Rico is destroyed. It’s really sad.”
Of all the problems unleashed by the storm, which roared over the island Sept. 20 as a Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 155 mph, the plight of overtaxed hospitals and smaller clinics — and health care in general — is one of the most worrying for officials grappling with recovery efforts.
The health system in the U.S. territory was already precarious, with a population that is generally sicker, older and poorer than that of the mainland, long waits and a severe shortage of specialists as a result of a decade-long economic recession. The island of 3.4 million people has higher rates of HIV, asthma, diabetes and some types of cancer, as well as tropical diseases such as the mosquito-borne Zika and dengue viruses.
In Maria’s wake, hospitals and their employees are wrestling with the same shortages of basic necessities as everyone else. There are people who are unable to keep insulin or other medicines refrigerated. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the tropical heat as widespread power outages mean no air conditioning. And amid the widespread disruption, it’s often difficult to get kids to a doctor, especially for families who can’t afford to drive long distances on a tank running out of gasoline.
“Whenever there is a disaster that impacts an area to the degree that this one has, then yes, people’s lives are going to be in danger,” said Dr. James Lapkoff, an emergency room doctor in Waynesville, North Carolina, who was part of the HHS team dispatched to Puerto Rico.
Days before the hurricane hit, 56-year-old retired government worker Damaris Torres tried to find a safe place for her son, who has been bedridden for a decade after a traffic accident and depends on a ventilator, oxygen tank and feeding tube.
She has a small generator at home and a battery connected to an inverter as backup, but she didn’t want a rerun of what happened when Hurricane Irma hit just weeks earlier. Back then her son, 30-year-old Manuel Alejandro Olivencia, was transferred to three hospitals in less than 40 hours because his family was told there was no “special place” for someone on a ventilator.
“He’s in such delicate condition,” Torres said, her eyes welling with tears as she recounted how a hospital in the northern fishing town of Catano finally took him in.
That facility relies on a generator, but officials say they constantly worry about running out of fuel.
“Diesel is the one thing everyone is asking for,” Mayor Felix Delgado said as he visited the hospital on a recent morning.
Maria knocked out electricity to the entire island, and only a handful of Puerto Rico’s 63 hospitals had generators operating at full power. Even those started to falter amid a shortage of diesel to fuel them and a complete breakdown in the distribution network.
Patients were sent to Centro Medico and several other major facilities, quickly overwhelming them. The situation is starting to improve, with about half of the hospitals getting direct power or priority shipments of diesel, but that barely addresses the challenges facing the island as a whole.
Jorge Matta, CEO of the nonprofit that runs the complex of hospitals that make up Centro Medico, said progress was being made on restoring power capacity there and finding places to send patients whose homes were destroyed. He said they expected to have all 20 operating rooms at the trauma center back up this weekend. But other parts of the island are in much worse shape.
“Right now we have hospitals (elsewhere) that need diesel, they need water, they need oxygen,” Matta said.