Nearly a year has passed since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s shores. The chaos left in its wake hasn’t subsided measurably according to residents and news sources. Residents of Puerto Rico are still lacking basic resources such as running water and electricity. Additionally, islanders are also hard pressed to find healthcare as many clinics continue to operate with limited or no electricity and many of their doors remain shuttered 10 months after the hurricane made landfall. As a result of the lack of aid Puerto Ricans have faced in the aftermath of the natural disaster, some companies have offered their own solutions to help these U.S. citizens in their search for healthcare.
- September 20, Category 4 Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico with 155 mph winds
- Post-hurricane the power grid is mostly destroyed; 95% of residents are without cell service
- Almost a year later 1 in 10 healthcare facilities still have no or limited power
- Small independent clinics such as InnovaCare Health’s operation Recargate have come to aid the island with healthcare outposts.
- Approximately 40,000 people have visited InnovaCare’s Recargate clinics since November as the healthcare structures continue to minimal improvement.
September 20 began as a normal day for Javim Cruz. The 23 year-old, a night-shift aircraft mechanic for the Air Force, rose in the late California afternoon. He had a bad feeling when he checked his phone. No messages, just a couple from work.
He wouldn’t have thought twice about it if he hadn’t been waiting to hear from his family, members of which he’d last spoken with in the early morning before he went to sleep. His dad, in particular, had assured him he’d be in touch later in the day.
Tengo que irme, hijo. Gotta go, son. Talk soon.
That was right before Maria made landfall.
At the time that Cruz received his last message from his father, the Category 4 Hurricane was approaching the island of Puerto Rico with winds averaging 155 mph.
What followed soon after – the flooding and devastation – would be covered heavily in the next days by international media. Residents of the island reported flood waters rising 6 feet in half an hour in some areas, and thousands of residents were trapped. The island’s power grid was effectively destroyed, leaving millions without electricity. Less than half of the population had tap water, and 95% were without cell service.
Which made it all the more a relief for Javim to hear from his dad, finally, via email.
“It was a bad night at work, for sure,” he said of the 12-hour shift he spent wondering about his family. “I don’t even know whose computer my dad used to send me that email, but he got one off to me. Our family was ok for now.”
Cruz applied the term “Ok” relatively; though his family survived the storm’s landfall, their home was without power or running water. To compound matters, his mother, Anna, who is diabetic, found herself with no doctor’s office for ongoing treatment.
“Her doctor had nowhere to work out of, no power,” said Cruz. “And even if he had an office to work out of, his family was without power as well. So he had to tend to them.”
It was a stressful 11 days for the Cruz family, who while working to get back some level of pre-storm normality also watched Anna’s insulin supply steadily dwindle. Even worse was that she was due an evaluation for her dosage.
“She was down to about two or three days’ worth that she had left,” said Cruz.
Sometime around then his father, a diesel mechanic for the government, passed a store front that had a peculiar sign out front.
“It said Recargate,” said Cruz, “which means to ‘recharge.’”
Cruz’s father learned that the store was serving as a station for island residents to stop by and charge their electronic devices. Yet by then, it was also being utilized as a makeshift clinic.
“By that time it seemed like everyone from our neighborhood was coming down there,” Cruz said. “Particularly older people, those near my mom in age.”
The initiative was developed by one of Puerto Rico’s larger Medicare Advantage health plans, called Medicare y Mucho Mas, a subsidiary of New Jersey-based InnovaCare Health. Termed MMM for short, the center that began a charging station became one for counsel and care as well. About 40,000 people have visited Recargate since November.
Hospitals throughout the island were severely damaged and largely remain in disrepair, prompting MMM president Orlando Gonzalez to remark specifically on the needs of Puerto Ricans – disease prevention and drug management particularly.
Heart disease and diabetes – two of the leading causes of death among Puerto Ricans – remained primary concerns for providers on the island. “(At-risk patients) also face the need to have a space for recreation, in a central and safe place to recharge, both physical and emotional,” said Gonzalez.
Recargate has offered services ranging from educational seminars to wellness workshops, as well as exercise classes. Volunteer behavioral health specialists have been periodically on-site to conduct mental health screenings, and drug evaluations.
Javim’s mother, Anna, benefited from all three.
“There was a doctor there who sat down and talked with her about her treatment plan,” he said. “And they basically picked up where her previous (provider) left off. This was just a guy who had no reason to help her other than he wanted to.”
Additionally, Anna was able to go home with a two-month’s supply of insulin, donated by a US-based corporation. From December through spring time, she received feedback on her diet plan and even attended a few exercise classes.
Recargate has been but one example of InnovaCare Health’s continued interest in the island’s wellbeing. After all, New Jersey has one of the highest concentrations of Puerto Ricans in the US. According to Dr. Richard Shinto, CEO of InnovaCare Health, there’s no easy answer to a healthcare crisis that was multi-pronged even before Maria. That the worst storm in the island’s history hit a population already reeling from poverty and a lack of housing and transportation compounded things ten-fold.
“If they go home and they can’t get that diet or have no place to stay or have no way to get the medication that was prescribed, everything you’ve done in the clinic has been lost,” he said.
InnovaCare implemented mobile clinics across the island as quickly as two weeks after the storm, and in months since have set up around 30 more. To date, more than 25,000 island residents have benefited from their care, which features primary care physicians and physician specialists. Most feature on-site pharmacists, as well, who can fill those prescriptions that have become so critical in Maria’s wake.
It’s not something Cruz’s family will soon forget.
“It’s a blessing,” said Cruz. “I think maybe it takes something horrible to bring out a lot of good in people. Those people in New Jersey, I’ve never met and neither has anyone from my family. But they were there for us.”