Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Conditions austere, work rewarding in Puerto Rico
When Charleston VAMC Nurse Managers Kim Croy, RN, and Sherri Jones, RN, touched down in Puerto Rico on Oct. 1, everything was black. No power. No water. No radar to even land their plane. Numerous roads and bridges were completely washed away, and thousands were left homeless in the wake or Hurricanes Irma and Maria. But Croy and Jones, who had never deployed much less to such utter devastation, were determined to make a difference for those who needed medical help.
They traveled about 40 miles northwest of San Juan to serve with a National Disaster Management Assistance Team (DMAT) at a make-shift medical facility set up in the town of Manati. Working 13 hours days, they and the 32 VA staff from around the country and the DMAT members, converted the local coliseum into a 250 bed acute care facility, providing medical care to about 1,400 patients over the next two weeks.
They saw a myriad of medical conditions including chain saw and machete injuries, broken bones, gastric illnesses, soaring blood sugar and blood pressure levels, burns, and more. Many patients had chronic conditions suddenly out of control because they had no more medication. Thankfully, though, those situations were usually resolved very quickly thanks to the DMAT and VA team’s partnership with national pharmacies.
“We saw so many things,” said Jones, “including a woman whose husband manually suctioned her trach for hours to keep her alive.
“Things are really different there,” Jones continued. “They don’t have a lot of long-term care so there are many families taking care of patients on vents in their homes, and they had no power.” At the Federal Medical Site in Manati, the team cared for about 40 ventilator patients during Croy and Jones’ two-week deployment.
Most heartbreaking, though, was the 82 year-old man who watched his home and car get washed away by the river. He had not spoken since the storm. His family said he was perfectly normal before the storm explained Croy, but he was hallucinating and obviously had PTSD. To calm him, a DMAT chaplain from Florida played the guitar.
“These people have nothing,” added Croy. “Their homes and cars were washed away with the river, but they were worried about the fact that Sherry and I had not had breakfast.”
They also praised the local teens who volunteered daily as interpreters at the clinic, saying many of them just needed the human contact. They have heard from several of the teens since returning on Oct. 15, and are concerned that they, like many in Puerto Rico, will need mental health care in the weeks and months to come to deal with the tragedies and traumas they have experienced and witnessed.
Both Croy and Jones have volunteered to deploy again to help the storm victims in Puerto Rico. Jones was notified that she may return as soon as early November. To date, five members of the Charleston VAMC family – Croy, Jones, Candace Merritt, LPN, Jonathan Rivera-Rosa, MD, and Rose Ramos, RN - have deployed to Puerto Rico.
For more on their deployment experience, visit ABC News 4's feature on these two nurses.