Hurricane María peeled the plaster off the wall of the Buen Samaritano Community Hospital in Aguadilla, ripped the air conditioning conduits on the roof and clogged the drainage pipes, which flooded the first floor of the hospital and damaged three of the hospital’s elevators. That would not be the worst the hospital would endure.
Despite the heavy damage suffered, the hospital’s emergency plan of supplies for two weeks and the emergency generator made it possible for the health institution to treat the many emergencies that ensued the terrible devastation caused by the hurricane.
“Our ER was packed. We even had a man who had been gored by a tree branch,” recalled Marilyn Morales, Executive Director of the institution. Hospital staff continued working for days on end, with little sleep. During this time, they were receiving help from numerous organizations and volunteers. “We have no idea how they found out about our plight, but they would show up to help,” said Morales who says they received help from five doctors of Florida Hospital, a network of hospitals in Orlando, Tampa and Daytona Beach. They relieved the beleaguered staff who had been working non-stop in the emergency. They also received help from the Border Patrol and other organizations who provided security. Buen Samaritano, with 230 beds, is the largest regional hospital in the northwest serving an area that roughly includes a population of 200,000.
A serious setback
Another catastrophe was about to strike the hospital. The Guajataca Dam had experienced a breach and was in danger of bursting, which forced the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) to halt water distribution to the area while the U.S. Corps of Engineers stabilized it. The hospital was left without water and forced to rely solely on its 324,000- gallon water tank to operate the hospital and its AC chiller, not enough for its ongoing needs. When they asked PRASA to supply their needs by truck, they were told that it could not be done.
The hospital staff was reduced to standing by. “We didn’t have a secure water supply for 40 days,” said Dr. Arturo Cedeño, Medical Director of the hospital. In the meantime, the hospital set up its own Emergency Operation Center to focus on addressing the damage suffered by the hospital. During this period, they halted operation of the hospital.
As the USNS Comfort, the 1,000 bed Navy hospital ship, moved off the coast of Aguadilla, Dr. Cedeño, accompanied in the ambulance three critical intensive care patients who were on ventilators to an area where they would be transported by air to the hospital ship. They were turned back when the helicopter flight was cancelled. The ambulance with Dr. Cedeño and the critically ill patients had torepeat the operation later. Meanwhile, the Army set up a temporary hospital on their grounds to tend to the needs of the sick.
First steps toward resiliency
“We took the time we were closed from October to November, to repair, paint, and clean all the AC conduits, clean the floors. We had nursing staff working on clean- up,” said José Rosa, the hospital’s Chief Engineer who oversees the physical facilities. They also supported the emergency hospital on the ground by providing food and supplies to the military staff assigned there.
Yet, the shutdown took its toll. “We lost our head of Ob-GYN and nursing staff,” said Dr. Cedeño. They accepted offers from health institutions on the mainland.
It was during a brainstorming session held by the hospital’s emergency operation center that they realized that they could submit a grant proposal to United for Puerto Rico. They asked for $621,934.50 to set up a 2MW generator, large enough to fully run the hospital’s needs as well as the building next door, which has medical offices and labs. They also proposed to dig a well to guarantee their water supply and asked for a large sterilizing equipment, which had been damaged by the storm.
By January, they had done all the work needed to submit the official grant request and by March they had received the funds. “This grant was a priority as United for Puerto Rico worked to support recovery efforts and enhance the resiliency of a key piece of the health system in the island’s northwest,” said Mariely Rivera, Executive Director of the disaster management foundation.
The 2MW generator has been temporarily installed while the well construction continues. Fortunately, they have found water at more than 400 feet and are in the process of testing it. So far, the construction of the well is underway, and it should be in operation in about four months when the generator will also be permanently installed next to the well.
The patient census is slowly returning to the pre-hurricane levels, yet Dr. Cedeño explained that it is likely that they will not return to normal until they hire specialists to fill the positions they lost due to the crisis. The hospital is currently interviewing doctors.
“Hurricane María taught us that we need to be self-sufficient, as much as we can,” said Dr. Cedeño. At least when it comes to energy and water, they will be able to meet their needs for the next storm or crisis. For more information on the work of United for Puerto Rico, visit our site: www.unitedforpuertorico.com and the hospital’s site: http://www.hbspr.org/.