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Puerto Rico relief effort

SUNY students work together with the nonprofit Nechama to repair roofs in Puerto Rico. Photo from Joseph WanderVaag

As Puerto Rico continues to recover a year after Hurricane Maria left devastation in its wake, some college students reflected on lasting memories of their missions to the island to offer help and support.

Joe VanderWaag helps to repair a roof in Puerto Rico. Photo from Joseph VanderWaag

This past summer more than 650 State University of New York and City University of New York students along with skilled labor volunteers helped to repair homes on the island through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) New York Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative, according to the governor’s website. During a 10-week span, five deployments of volunteers worked on the island with the goal of repairing the roofs of 150 homes. By the end of the summer, the volunteers fixed the roofs of 178.

Peter Velz, SUNY assistant vice chancellor for external affairs, said since October 2017 the university system was working on engagement with Puerto Rico. On March 16 students from SUNY Alfred State and Geneseo went down for a week.

He said he believes the interaction with the homeowners was probably the most impactful for the students, and the residents they met in Puerto Rico tried to pay them back the best they could.

“It wasn’t paying them back financially,” Velz said. “Kids would make them bracelets or kids would make them pictures or the families would make them lunch. I really think that was probably the most lasting impact for the students, was working in the homes with the homeowners and providing them shelter.”

Rebecca Mueller, one of 21 Stony Brook University students who volunteered, traveled to the island in July, as did Joseph VanderWaag, who attends Suffolk County Community College’s Ammerman Campus.

“I wish there was more that we could do. But I think that the main goal for the organization, while we were there, was to make it livable at that point.”

— Rebecca Mueller

Mueller, 23, of Coram, a graduate student working toward her master’s in social work, said when she received an email from SBU looking for students to travel to Puerto Rico she knew she had to help.

“I knew things there still weren’t that great from hearing different stories, and I felt like not as much help was given to them as it should have been,” she said. “So, when I saw an opportunity where I could actually help to do something, I knew I couldn’t pass it up.”

VanderWaag, 20, of Smithtown, who is in his last semester at SCCC, echoed those sentiments.

“It was so devastating to see that these were our citizens not really getting any help,” he said.

Traveling to Catano and surrounding towns where her group was working, Mueller said she saw houses with no roofs, windows or doors. She worked on three homes during her stay, and said the students would climb to the top of roofs and roofers with the nonprofit NECHAMA — Jewish Response to Disaster showed them what to do.

Rebecca Mueller, above right, and a friend get ready to patch leaks with cement. Photo from Rebecca Mueller

Two of the buildings she worked on had second stories before Hurricane Maria, but the upper levels were destroyed by the storm, and the volunteers had to turn what was left into roofs by scraping up tiles, finding cracks, grinding them to open them up and then sealing with cement. The volunteers then primed and sealed the new roofs to make them waterproof.

“I wish there was more that we could do,” Mueller said “But I think that the main goal for the organization, while we were there, was to make it livable at that point. Because they couldn’t even live in the houses because every time it rained water was pouring through the ceiling.”

Mueller said she also helped to clean out one man’s bedroom that was unlivable after water damage from the storm. The room had mold and bugs, and his bed, clothes and other items needed to be thrown out.

VanderWaag said the homeowners he met didn’t have a lot of money so whenever there was a leak they would go to the hardware store for a quick fix to patch the roof. When the students weren’t working, he said they would talk to community members about the hurricane’s devastation and the response from the U.S.

“They are a mixture of upset, angry and feeling just almost betrayed,” he said.

VanderWaag said he’ll always remember how appreciative the homeowners were and how one woman cried after they were done. Her husband who was in his 70s would try his best to fix the leaks by carrying bags of concrete up a ladder and patching the leaks.

“It was a huge burden lifted off their shoulders,” VanderWaag said.

“They are a mixture of upset, angry and feeling just almost betrayed.”

— Joseph VanderWaag

Mueller said one family cooked lunch for her group and others working on the house next door every day. She said the students had time to sightsee, and when one tour guide heard what they were doing, he offered to take them on a free tour of the south side of the island. Both she and VanderWaag also visited Old San Juan and saw historic military forts during their trips.

“It really was a life-changing experience,” Mueller said. “Even the people I met from the other SUNY schools, we became so close so quick.”

Pascale Jones, SBU international programs coordinator, joined students for a week to help out. She said when she saw the students in action, she was amazed at how much they already knew about construction and found the whole experience to be humbling.

Originally from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jones said she is used to seeing a certain level of devastation but was surprised to see the state of some of the homes.

“It’s Puerto Rico and these are U.S. citizens,” Jones said. “So, I did not expect this devastation so long after the hurricane’s passing. To think, U.S. citizens are living in a way that I would almost equate to a third world country.”

Above, Stony Brook Medicine’s Puerto Rico medical relief team. Photo from SBU

By Kenneth Kaushansky, M.D.

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky

As the holidays arrive, our thoughts turn to giving — and giving back to those who need our help. Stony Brook Medicine’s Puerto Rico medical relief team did just that, spending two weeks on the devastated island to treat patients and give a much-needed break to health care workers there.

We got word, after Category 5 Hurricane Maria swept through, of the conditions in Puerto Rico. Pharmacies were in ruins. Patients with chronic illnesses who needed to see their primary care physicians could not get appointments. Health care professionals couldn’t tend to their own families, nor repair their damaged homes, because their services were needed around the clock.

Relief efforts for those in Puerto Rico took on many forms. In my role as chair of the Greater New York Hospital Association board of directors, I served as part of an organization that teamed up with the Healthcare Association of New York State to establish the New York Healthcare’s Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund to assist hospitals, health care workers and their families in Puerto Rico. The fund is a vehicle for New York’s hospital community to show its support for frontline caregivers and their families who have suffered significant losses.

I’m proud how Stony Brook Medicine also responded to this human health crisis. As part of a 78-member relief team of personnel from hospitals around the region, Stony Brook organized a team of health care professionals that was deployed to Puerto Rico. They signed on to spend two weeks living and working 12-hour days in less-than-ideal conditions, with widespread shortages of food, water and electricity.

Our 23 care providers — three physicians, two nurse practitioners, nine nurses, four paramedics, four nursing assistants and one pharmacist — split up after arriving in Puerto Rico. Most were stationed in the city of Manatí, while the rest went to the city of Fajardo and then to the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort. They worked closely with military personnel, federal agencies and the people of Puerto Rico. They saw more than 2,000 patients and helped local health care workers get some rest and get back on their feet.

Our team returned home in November to cheers and hugs from their co-workers and loved ones who met them at Stony Brook University Hospital. Despite the hardships and long hours, they spoke of the deeply fulfilling experiences they had in Puerto Rico. Their trip embodied the reasons why people choose a career in health care in the first place — to be of service and to provide excellent care.

Stony Brook Medicine’s mission is to deliver world-class, compassionate care to patients and families. And sometimes that mission extends well beyond our own four walls. We are making a difference, not only here at home but in communities around the world.

All of us at Stony Brook Medicine are so extremely proud of our Puerto Rico relief team. The work they did was heroic, generous in the extreme and so worthwhile. Our thanks also go to their families and to their Stony Brook colleagues who stepped up to cover extra shifts while the team was away.

Having heard many of their experiences, I cannot say enough about the team members and their devotion. I know they have returned much better for the experience and are now safely back to continue their efforts to improve the health of our patients.

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky serves as dean of the School of Medicine and senior vice president of Health Sciences at State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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