We’ve seen the images from Puerto Rico — buildings smashed into kindling, homes with roofs violently ripped off, uprooted trees, snarled power lines, flooded streets, undrinkable water, and extreme harm to the health and well-being of the island’s 3.4 million inhabitants.
The damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria’s 154 mph winds on Sept. 20 is heartbreaking, especially for six Kaiser Permanente nurses from the Northwest Region who witnessed the aftermath firsthand. As one nurse puts it, “Images of Puerto Rico will stay with me forever.”
With just a few days’ notice, each answered the call from the Oregon Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals local 5017 to join a 14-day humanitarian mission to Puerto Rico. AFL-CIO pulled the trip together in October with help from an airline, which donated use of a jet and crew to transport 300 nurses, truck drivers, carpenters and supplies.
“The purpose of the trip was to relieve local health care professionals working ‘round the clock to provide much-needed care,” says Adrienne Enghouse, OFNHP president. “We’re nurses. Caring is in our DNA.”
The Kaiser Permanente Northwest nurses who went to Puerto Rico are Andrea Gentile, Susan Gillespie and Maureen Upton from Interstate Medical Office urgent care; Misty Richards, RN, Sunnyside Medical Center medical-surgical progressive care unit; Kate Salinas, Cascade Park Medical Office urgent care; and Tammy Tally-Ingrao, RN, Sunnybrook ambulatory Surgery Center. All are heroes for lending their knowledge, skills and compassion to the people of Puerto Rico — and so, too, are the Kaiser Permanente Northwest staff whose support and backfill made the mission possible.
Four of the six nurses work in urgent care. Adam Morris, senior administrator, says the department “is a collection of amazing clinicians and staff that have made a career of helping people when they need it most. This opportunity for our colleagues to help the impacted people of Puerto Rico further confirms our commitment to our mission to improve the health of the communities we serve. In this case, our community extended all the way to Puerto Rico, and our urgent care clinicians jumped at the chance to make a difference. In addition, our teams that could not make the trip stepped up to ensure our Kaiser Permanente members were cared for back at home. We have an amazing team.”
After returning to the Northwest, the nurses talked about their experiences in Puerto Rico. They describe “landing in chaos,” “families sleeping in bedding covered with toxic black mold” and “medications getting washed away by the storm.” They mention a nurse practitioner who “performed minor surgery using a buck knife sterilized by a lighter.”
“I felt pretty helpless to alleviate their suffering, not having adequate supplies. It was frustrating at times. I saw lots of people with depression and anxiety who were not sure how they would manage day to day.”
“After a few days of going into the communities, it was clear the greatest need was for food and water. We were provided with small amounts to dispense, but it didn’t seem like enough, so volunteers were making runs to local big box stores such as Costco to buy supplies with our own money to give to communities in need.” — Maureen Upton
“We provided care to individuals who did not have access to the medical system. A man was repairing his roof late at night without lights because there was no electricity. He sustained a painful foot injury that we treated and protected from possible infection in the bone. In a neighborhood where men were sorting through the wreckage of homes, we worked with them to craft a splint out of debris for a woman who appeared to have broken her ankle. We delivered a battery-powered nebulizer machine to an elderly man so he could have regular breathing treatments. We provided a woman with enough insulin to prevent a gap while she waited for her pharmacy to get a shipment.”
“The resourcefulness of the families we visited was awe-inspiring, but we knew that resources were dwindling and we wanted to prepare people for the days when there would be no bottled water or tap water available. We purchased and distributed chlorine with instructions on treating water to families who would rely on collecting water from a mountain spring and did not have electricity or fuel to boil the water.” — Kate Salinas
“You name it, I saw it. But I can sum it up by saying that I saw the best that humanity has to offer, both in the volunteers and in the communities. Things were much more desperate than even was being shown on television. I saw families stressed to survive and using that to bring them closer – closer to each other, to their neighbors and to their community. I talked to a gentleman repairing a temple who said the silver lining of this tragedy was that people are returning to their roots of caring for each other.”
When asked how the experience made her feel, Misty replies: “All emotions possible, many I did not even know I could feel. Mostly, I felt powerless in the beginning. But then anger, indignation and outrage. Knowing that was not helpful, we all worked really hard to use that as fuel. Doing what we do as health care professionals, we went to work and got things done. We bought supplies with our own money, we created educational materials, and we taught classes on hand hygiene and water safety. We became the masters of flexibility we are known for, and advocated for our patients. One of the other union members down there with us said, ‘If you need something to get done, just go get one of the nurses.’ I am proud of that.” — Misty Richards