Minnesota doctor continues ongoing relief effort for Puerto Rico

- After a long day of treating patients, Miguel Fiol, M.D. sat inside a University of Minnesota Health exam room Wednesday afternoon--concerned, yet determined and hopeful.

During a follow-up interview at University of Minnesota Clinics and Surgery Center, the neurologist was candid about the troubling health crisis that now grips his native Puerto Rico.

“This is heading to a very bad place if nothing happens pretty soon,” he said. “People are chronically ill that have been ill for a while, [there are] very little resources in the community and all of the sudden boom--no water, no electricity and no resources."

The neurologist just returned home to Minnesota from a seven-day medical relief mission that spanned 500 miles across four island towns--mostly focusing on home care because many were too sick to leave.

He made a previous trip in September, raising $15,000 and gathering 300 pounds of medical supplies since then in an effort to return.

“The local hospitals are closed and pharmacies can't dispense because they don't have computers,” he said.

The Minnesota-based medical relief team consisted of three other doctors and a registered nurse: 

  • Dr. Eduardo Medina of Park Nicollet Health Partners,
  • Dr. Eileen Crespo with Hennepin County Medical Center,
  • Dr. Serge Pierrecharles of Britton Center
  • Carla Velez, a registered nurse at Fairview Southdale.

When they weren’t visiting the towns of Lajas, Naranjito, Conovonas and Morovis, the team camped inside Dr. Fiol’s condo in the capital of San Juan. The condo itself remains without electricity and running water, but he said the bare-bones lodging is a small price to pay for the effort, especially in comparison what the team witnessed islanders endure.

“Just think for a minute if you had to live without electricity and water for a month," he said. "We’re seeing a of mental health issues, and I’m consulting with psychiatrists here at the U and with people who’ve dealt with health crises to deal with that."

The team consulted with at least 200 patients whose conditions he feared would only continue to worsen otherwise.

“Clinics, homes, stadiums, schools anywhere we can get people to come," Dr. Fiol said. "We [brought] medication, we saw them and gave them advice, but the biggest thing we gave them I think is a sense they're being supported."

As of Wednesday afternoon, Hurricane Maria’s death toll in Puerto Rico rose to at least 54, while at least 60 percent of people remain without power and 20 percent without water.

“It’s very bad, especially inland," Dr. Fiol said. "Inland it’s a very sad story."

The medical relief team found it difficult to hone in on a single subset of problems, but their mission focused on managing the island’s worst health issues: long-term diseases, water borne illnesses and the emotional toll the disaster still takes on everyone there--whether they're offering aid or enduring Maria’s aftermath.

“It made us all very depressed that so much has gone on, over a month [has gone by] and there is very little progress," Dr. Fiol said.

Dr. Fiol is asking professionals with experience in global medicine and natural disasters to join him this Friday Nov. 3 at 5:30 p.m. inside the University of Minnesota's Phillips-Wangensteen Building, where he’ll plan the next installment in this on-going effort to restore the island’s healthcare. 

If you are interested in going, email Dr. Fiol at: Fiolx001@umn.edu.

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