A urologist joins efforts to rebuild her native Puerto Rico.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Janice Santos Cortes, MD, an assistant professor of surgery (urology) and a native of Puerto Rico, organized fundraisers and collected medical supplies and gave interviews. She told reporters in October that crippled transportation and electrical and communications failures were hindering relief efforts. She worried about a looming mental health crisis, communicable disease outbreaks, and a shortage of health care workers.
Months later, little has changed. “We have received more generators,” Santos says. “Most hospitals now are open. … We are very thankful that we haven’t heard of any new outbreak after the initial leptospirosis that we had.”
But many of her fears have been realized. Unreliable electricity and communications have a “domino effect,” she says, that hamper rebuilding and endanger public health. Even though 90 percent of Puerto Ricans have running water, “we still have to boil it,” she says. With the loss of jobs and homes, the spiraling cost of living, and the mass exodus from the island, she adds, suicides are up. (The number of deaths due to the storm is under review.)
Like many Puerto Ricans on the mainland, Santos has been fully engaged in the island’s recovery. “For me,
it’s like a second job,” says the urologist, who practices at Brown Urology Inc. and sees patients at the Women’s Medicine Collaborative in Providence. She has networked with colleagues across the country (and at work) to gather medicine, food, and water, as well as solar lights, clothing, and toys.
In late December, with Puerto Rico Rise Up, a nonprofit composed of health care professionals, Santos was able to go home and deliver supplies personally, at orphanages across the island. “We’re helping them rebuild”—from paying orphanage staff to repairing structural damage—“and bringing some happiness during Christmas,” she says. “These kids broke my heart. They just wanted to be loved and play with you.”
A couple of weeks later Santos went back, to distribute MREs, water filters, medical supplies, and first aid kits as well as toys on Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico’s east coast that was hit hard by the hurricane. In January residents still lacked electricity, adequate food, and a functional hospital, she says. “The VA clinic and the public hospital were condemned after Hurricane Maria and many patients do not have access to medical care or medications,” she says. Fuel shortages have made travel to and from the island even more difficult.
Santos returned from Vieques disheartened. “It was very intense,” she says. Nonetheless she expressed gratitude to people around the country who have donated to organizations like hers; to Brown, which admitted dozens of displaced University of Puerto Rico students this year, tuition free; and to the Medical School, which coordinated a press conference so she could call attention to the island’s emergent needs after the storm. “They’ve been raising a lot of awareness,” she says.
Santos wishes she could do more. But she’s optimistic. “I’m just trying to be a little grain of sand, and keep building it and building it, and hopefully with the help of everyone, we can have a beach. And slowly but consistently, we can rebuild our island,” she says. “I just want people to understand that there’s still a lot to be done.”