Doctor Steps Up to Help Neglected Community After Huge Storm

"You're doing something to help others. We can recognize someone that needs help now, and potentially save their life."
Andrew Thomas August 20, 2018

Hurricane season is quickly approaching, and it’s difficult not to think of the devastation Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico last September. Aid resources were limited, but this man searched for a community in need, and made a crucial impact.

Dr. Pedro Torres is a native of Brentwood, New York, and started his medical residency in Puerto Rico beginning in June 2015.

When Hurricane Maria tore through the island in September 2017, Torres experienced the disaster firsthand.

The aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

While the extensive destruction was widely reported on, many communities were overlooked in relief efforts.

Fortunately, under-treated populations are Torres’ specialty.

Torres had founded an organization called Community Health Alliance of Medical Professionals in 2013 for these types of situations, and they responded to the crisis.

Torres mobilized his colleagues from the U.S.—including alumni from the American University of Antigua, where he had attended medical school—and they traveled to Puerto Rico with a diversity of expertise and supplies.

The organization, also known by its acronym CHAMP, brings different medical professionals together including paramedics, firefighters, doctors, and mental health professionals to reach populations in need after natural disasters. 

While recovery efforts were hampered in Puerto Rico, a neighboring island called Vieques had been largely without assistance at all.

A road on the main island. (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

Torres had been working with A la Mano por Puerto Rico—a local group that provides, food, water, and medical assistance—on the mainland for several months, and he and his organization had identified Vieques as a population in need of assistance.

Vieques is a small island that is part of Puerto Rico. Being an island off of an island made the population particularly isolated.

Torres, together with his old friend Dr. Bilal Khan of Norwalk Hospital, Connecticut, sprang into action to join forces with A la Mano por Puerto Rico and the J.J. Barea Foundation’s aid efforts in Vieques.

On February 9, Torres and his team arrived in Vieques. Many of the homes were destroyed, and the island was being powered by generators.

“If you drive through Vieques you can see the destruction almost as if it happened just a few weeks prior to [our arrival],” Torres told Humanity.

The team set up a medical camp in the town square where residents could receive basic provisions and medical treatment.

“In this particular mission, the skillset that was needed was to set up a medical camp. The personnel that I drew on was EMTs, paramedics, nurses, physicians, and things of that nature to accomplish this particular mission and goal,” Torres explained.

Roughly 22 of his colleagues traveled with supplies from the U.S. to the island to join the three-day mission. All the volunteers paid for their own flights and accommodation, and raised funds to pay for the supplies.

Around 1,500 people turned up at the event, according to a Katherine Reina, a nurse practitioner who joined the mission.

(Courtesy of Jomar Mercado)

Some of the biggest obstacles the team encountered while treating patients were the cultural differences and the role they play in daily life in Vieques.

“For example, many people on the island of Vieques, and Puerto Rico for that matter, their priorities became their homes, and they would delay seeking medical care,” Torres explained.

Residents with chronic illnesses would show up to the medical camp in worse condition because they had understandably been focusing on their homes.

Torres and his team treated roughly 150 patients in Vieques over the course of five hours, but there was one he vividly remembers.

Torres (left) with a colleague. (Courtesy of Jomar Mercado)

He treated a patient with a chronic heart condition, who had not been able to address her illness effectively after the storm. She suffered from high blood pressure as well as diabetes.

She had chest pain while walking, and it would go away when she rested. The pain had gotten worse over the past several weeks.

Torres was able to treat her, and arrange for her to go to the main island to see a cardiologist for follow-up care. Without the improvised medical clinic, she likely would not have received the care she needed.

This woman is just one example of how underserved populations in Puerto Rico still need help today.

Situations like these are part of what drew Torres to Puerto Rico for his residency in the first place.

“I was just drawn to dealing with very very sick people, so I always wanted to do emergency medicine,” Torres said.

With hurricane season approaching, it’s people like Torres and his colleagues who can make the difference in a natural disaster.

While Torres finds his work fulfilling, he realizes that there’s much more work to be done.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “You’re doing something to help others. We can recognize someone that needs help now, and potentially save their life. But unfortunately, it takes events like Hurricane Maria for people to do events like this.”