A Naval emergency medicine physician from Port Jefferson Station is trying to provide comfort while aboard a ship named for it in Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Maria made landfall in September as a historic Category 5 storm, devastating Puerto Rico with sustained gusts nearing 200 mph. When Lt. Katherine Biggs, a resident at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia currently receiving training in military-specific medicine, was offered the chance to travel to the storm-ravaged island, the 2006 Comsewogue High School graduate said it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
Biggs is one of five from the residency program aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship Comfort, which reached Puerto Rico Oct. 3 and does not have a scheduled return date, working on the boat’s casualty receiving area administering medical aide to those affected. Catastrophic flooding, damaged infrastructure and a lack of supplies, drinking water and electricity have created a dangerous situation for most Puerto Ricans trying to restore their regular routine.
“We’ll be here as long as directed and as long as needed,” Biggs said in a phone interview from Puerto Rico. “I’ll stay here as long as they’ll let me.”
She called the trip thus far a great learning experience, and said it’s been a change of pace helping people with severe respiratory and heart issues, for example, because she’s used to providing medical attention to those with traumatic, combat-related injuries. Biggs has treated some with broken bones, but said many of the patients she has been tasked with treating are people with chronic issues that are flaring up because they’ve been unable to take their prescribed medicines for various reasons.
The lieutenant said she knew when she was in ninth or tenth grade at Comsewogue that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine as a way to help people in need. After four years at Binghampton University as an undergraduate, she moved on to medical school at New York Institute of Technology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, graduating in 2015. Biggs said she was able to afford the schooling thanks to the Health Professions Scholarship Program, a financial assistance offering from the U.S. military, which she heard about from a neighbor. She is in the third year of her residency in Portsmouth, and it is a rarity for residents to be asked to go on a trip like the one she’s on now, according to residency program director Commander John Devlin.
“This opportunity may be tough in the sense of the people struggling, but it is allowing my daughter to do what she was meant to do — help people in need.”
— Laurie Biggs
“I say it’s win-win,” Devlin said in a statement. “The people of Puerto Rico are getting more emergency medicine physician manpower than they would have had, had we gone with the original plan. And from the resident standpoint and the Navy’s standpoint, we are getting five junior physicians that, for their entire career, will have this experience base to carry forward to apply to missions in the future.”
With the help of the “Sea Knights” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron, Biggs and the other residents have been able to personally assist in medical evacuation missions around the island to return people to the ship for treatment via helicopter.
“When I heard about Katie’s plans to head to Puerto Rico I was incredibly proud,” Biggs’ mother Laurie said in an email. “I remember reminding her that this is why she joined the Navy and wanted to become a doctor. This opportunity may be tough in the sense of the people struggling, but it is allowing my daughter to do what she was meant to do — help people in need.”
Biggs’ mother added she knew from an early age her daughter, who is the oldest of four, was a caring and helpful person, ever aware of helping the less fortunate.
“To us she will always just be Katie, the daughter and older sister that is always there when you need her,” she said.
Biggs said her biggest takeaway from the mission thus far has been the dedication of responders on the ground to do whatever it takes to help both individuals and the island as a whole return to normalcy. To contribute to the relief effort, visit the American Red Cross website at www.redcross.org/donate.