Hurricane Maria destroyed my island by leaving it flooded, without electricity, and without easy access to gasoline or water. Puerto Rico’s population was struggling to have food and medication. The strong winds pulled trees out of the soil, and many blocked the streets. Access to medical care was limited since transportation was a challenge to most of the population.
As a medical student at San Juan Bautista School of Medicine, I decided to stay on my island after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico to help the community. Since my medical school is community based, it fought to stay open and serve Puerto Rico’s population. I started participating in different medical relief mission trips throughout the island’s most affected areas. My first patient from the disaster was enough to tear my heart. A man who used to work and had a stable family lost everything in the hurricane. He looked at my eyes with despair, saying that he wanted to kill himself because he could not stand walking alone in the dark anymore. After that, a lady came whose mother had just passed away due to the lack of electricity or an accessible medical facility that could provide her dialysis. Other patients had uncontrolled diabetes due to both the lack of insulin and the absence of electrical power to maintain the medicine at the required temperature. This was only the beginning of the deterioration of the physical and mental health of Puerto Rico’s population.
Months later, I started my psychiatry clerkship rotation at the Pavia Hospital and was flabbergasted by the increase in mental health diseases, like schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, psychosis, and suicide ideation. The psychiatric floors were always full, and hopelessness flooded the environment. Diseases became harder to diagnose and manage without the appropriate equipment and medication. When in surgery, the team members had to work in dim lighting to try to save lives. Communication, observation, and organization were their key to success.
My sculpture Maria, on the cover of this issue, represents all of the feelings I developed from working with Hurricane Maria victims. I made Maria with clay, a mixture of water and mud that starts out smooth and malleable and becomes solid—but breakable and sensitive—after passing through heat. The figure in my sculpture is hopeless and tired, but she has not surrendered. Her head is lowered to her arms from being overwhelmed, but she is not entirely leaning on them, because she cannot afford to give up. She thinks of the increasing criminality, the lack of food and supplies, and the diseases that cannot be controlled.
When I was her, I thought of how to keep my family members safe, how to be efficient in helping the community, and how to stay strong and continue with my medical studies with or without electricity. I raised my head and never gave up.
Moments like these, in the aftermath of natural disasters, are life changing and depend on how prepared we are. Health care professionals worldwide have to be prepared and alert far beyond their expectations. We need to raise our heads from our arms and raise ourselves from the ground to take immediate action.