Puerto Rico outreach proves life-changing for Reid Health doctor

By Larry Price

‘The most uplifting thing was the spirit of the people’ – Sara Diaz Valentin, M.D.

When they flow, the tears are a mixture of both joy and sadness for Sara Diaz Valentin, M.D.

The deep sadness is from the harsh reality of massive devastation brought to her native island of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria – devastation she saw firsthand recently during an extremely personal medical mission.

Dr. Diaz examines a little boy during her trip.

The sometimes overwhelming joy results from the outpouring of help from her physician peers, her employer, coworkers and many others since she collected 19 suitcases and boxes of medicines and supplies and personally delivered them. She spent what was to be her vacation traveling the island handing out the medicine and supplies, evaluating patients, and dodging hurricane damage and flooded roads.

The experience changed her. “Changed, big time. It makes you appreciate what you have more. It makes you appreciate the health care we have more. And it makes you want to do more,” she said. She shared photos of destroyed homes, flooded and washed out highways. She shared photos of herself and others providing medicine and performing health checks on residents. She was on the island for a hectic week and already plans to return as soon as she is able.

“I actually felt guilty leaving. I felt like I had to stay longer and do more. I beat myself up for certain things I didn’t bring with me,” she said, referencing the roller coaster of emotions the visit brought. She had to leave – but she didn’t stop. Her efforts and connections made with peers across the United States led to the formation of a new, non-profit organization – another development that brings joy in the sadness. “It’s been very inspiring to see that I’m certainly not the only one. There are multiple people feeling the deep drive to do something,” she said.

The organization is called “Puerto Rico Rise Up, Inc.” (http://puertoricoriseup.org/) Its first project is a toy drive called “Caravana Navidar,” (http://www.caravananavidar.com/) which is a play on words similar to “a Christmas-giving Caravan” in English. The initial event is collecting toys for foster homes and orphanages, and also funds for rebuilding or repairing damages to the facilities. The drive collected more than 200 toys in just a few days and jumped to more than a thousand over one weekend as the word spread – prompting a need to secure a warehouse in Puerto Rico, rather than an original plan to ship them to a physician’s home.

The group’s immediate goal is to revive the holiday spirit for foster children affected by the hurricane. Funds raised will be used to retain staff, repair damage to orphanages and collect toys. The organization has established short-term goals for things like the toy drive and water purification but the long-term goal is to help rebuild the extensive damage.

It all began for Dr. Diaz soon after the hurricane, when she was unable to reach family members who live on the island. She immediately began planning to go there for a week she had already scheduled for a regular vacation.

She gathered funds and supplies, many of them donated by Reid Health or purchased with funds collected by physician peers across the nation. She eventually learned her mother was safe and also had a brief conversation with her sister – only to learn she had lost most of the contents of her home.

Dr. Diaz, with the help of another physician friend, flew to the island with 19 bags of supplies. Her first stop was her sister’s home, where she was able to determine next steps and work with others to start getting the supplies to the communities that needed them.

She also carried a banner signed with well-wishes from Reid Health that was originally expected to be hung in a medical facility. Instead, it was given to a community center where volunteers worked and who were really touched by the fact that people in far-away Indiana would care. They were amazed and thankful “for the fact that people at a hospital in Indiana — they don’t even know where Indiana is — were thinking about them. It was very touching.”

As a specialist in urology, Dr. Diaz was somewhat out of her comfort zone in the type of medicine she was able to offer. Many times it was as much about the emotional/psychological support for people feeling desperate and abandoned, she said.

By the time she arrived, her sister’s home was mostly cleaned up. “At least she had water, which is more important than electricity. We had electricity every other day for a few hours.”

She checked in with the Medical College of Puerto Rico on Monday and then connected with a physician with whom she graduated medical school. They trekked to a rural town in the southern part of the island the first day. Each day during the week they would make a difficult drive to other areas they could reach, getting trapped by water over roads at least once following a storm that re-flooded their route.

She saw numerous people who had run out of medicines. One was a diabetic who’d been without medicine for at least two days. They took antibiotics to a clinic in one community that had been completely out for days. “A local doctor who had organized a centralized clinic had zero antibiotics, so we were able to give him the ones from Reid. I gave him sutures. I gave at least half of what I had there. No one had reached there with any supplies.”

At times she and others with her went door-to-door checking on residents. She described it as “nursing home type care – checking on ulcers, giving them recommendations, topical medications and antibiotics.”

Besides the vast medical needs, she saw devastation everywhere. “You can just lose it in a heartbeat,” she said. “But I think the most uplifting thing was the spirit of the people. The people are helping each other. It was really touching. It gets back to what medicine is all about, helping other people. It was very spiritual … the closest to a spiritual experience that I’ve had in medicine.”