by Racquel Sohasky

Six months ago, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a near Category 5 storm, lashing the island with wind and rain for over 30 hours. The effects were widespread and catastrophic, wiping out electricity and running water across the entire island. This destruction would incapacitate for any town, state, or country, but it was devastating for Puerto Rico for both geographic and political reasons. Every single Puerto Rican has been impacted, regardless of their wealth or education.

Two months after the hurricane, I joined a team the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences sent to Puerto Rico to provide health services. I witnessed firsthand the many problems families were facing daily, as well as the role gender plays in how hardship is experienced.

Hurricane Maria had several compounding effects on Puerto Rico. The electrical grid went down,  water was contaminated, homes were destroyed, and lives were lost. While there are government departments for handling natural disaster situations, the work being done was surpassed by the devastation. While the services in San Juan, the territory’s capital, were restored relatively quickly, many outlying areas were completely neglected. Before leaving the continental United States, my perception was our country had simply forgotten about the crisis which still existed in Puerto Rico. After I arrived in Puerto Rico,  I witnessed a lack of organization and implementation of good intentions, not a lack of concern.

My work in Puerto Rico focused on medical concerns. We visited the town of Yabucoa, which was where Hurricane Maria made landfall. The lack of power and clean water meant most clinics and pharmacies were temporarily closed, leaving many patients without access to healthcare. Our team provided primary care to these patients, only a temporary solution. Typically,  we treated chronic health concerns such as hypertension and diabetes. I was astonished common medical supplies were unavailable in a territory of the United States.

To treat the cause instead of only symptoms, we brought water filters for people in the surrounding community. Clean water was a top priority for us; it is impossible to maintain good health without it. In addition to treating chronic conditions, many patients had infections and illnesses due to drinking or bathing in unclean water. The best solution is to prevent these problems, rather than treat them with limited medical services.

While everyone suffers in a crisis, women often suffer more. During times of hardship, women tend to find ways to support their family and mothers take on roles to care for their children. According to the United Nations Development Programme, women are more likely to be affected by domestic violence and sexual assault following disasters. Women are also more likely to lose their lives than men and women face more extreme cases of poverty for themselves and their children following disasters, exacerbating pre-existing gender hierarchies. Often victims of domestic and sexual violence lack resources, as well as a lack of consequences for people who commit these crimes.

Too often Americans focus our attention on the latest major crisis and forget the people still struggling from previous disasters. There are systemic political and economic problems Puerto Rico faces as it recovers from Hurricane Maria. Measures must be taken to enable citizens to recover and empower them to weather future storms. But Puerto Ricans, especially women, need sufficient and coordinated aid. Please don’t forget they need your help.

About the author:

Racquel Sohasky was a 2016 B.A. Rudolph Foundation STEM Scholar and interned with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Department of Anesthesiology. Inspired by a previous medical mission trip to Nicaragua, Racquel has also volunteered in Guatemala where she lived in the rural community of Nuevo Horizonte and taught English. Racquel holds a Bachelor of Arts in biology from Carthage College in Kenosha, WI and is currently a medical student at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. Read more here and read a prior blog on Women & Medicine

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