Minnesota doctor's island getaway turns into ongoing relief effort for Puerto Rico

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What started as an island getaway for Dr. Miguel Fiol quickly turned into a five-day medical relief effort once Hurricane Maria razed his native U.S. commonwealth.

“I kind of felt it was my duty," he said. "If I go there to vacation I can go there to give a hand to the rescue."

The University of Minnesota Health neurologist is also an associate professor at the U’s medical school. Eager to help everyone in need in Puerto Rico, including patients from the U.S. Virgin Islands who were on dialysis, Fiol quickly realized his effort to provide aid to people in Puerto Rico is far from over.

“We serviced the refugee population," he said. "They basically had their houses blown away. They had no home, nowhere to go, no medication."

Family duties forced Dr. Fiol to return to the mainland on Tuesday–sooner than he would have liked.

“I left with a heavy heart,” he said. “My wife’s health would not stand the risk of staying.”

Now, as the neurologist treats patients at the University of Minnesota Health’s Clinics and Surgery Center, he keeps a small island flag close to his heart and prepares to organize more support for the people of Puerto Rico--support he expects will be easier to supply, now that President Trump lifted the Jones Act for at least 10 days. The federal law prohibits foreign flagged ships from shuttling goods between U.S. ports.

“Other countries like Panama sent an airplane with cargo, and Cuba has offered but because of that law the Cubans could not come in,” Fiol said. “Seventy percent of people don’t have electricity, and I’m concerned about epidemics because there’s a lot of water and there are dead animals around."

“It’s really something that breaks your heart,” said Alan Panelli, a Ponce, Puerto Rico, native that serves as an administrative care coordinator at University of Minnesota Health. “The problem now is that it seems like once all of that arrives to the island, it’s becoming very difficult to distribute it."

Panelli is also involved in launching Fiol’s effort, hoping to eliminate the need for medical supplies.

Conditions in Puerto Rico are expected to remain dire well into the unforeseen future and it could take at least a year for recovery to be evident.

“It’s going to be a marathon, Panelli said. "It’s not something that you send supplies one time and that’s it. This is something that’s going to take many, many months of effort."

Dr. Fiol is now calling on the resources of the University of Minnesota and the community for support. He says he’ll meet with other health care professionals in the coming days and have information about where to send donations and support next week.

Meanwhile, Governor Mark Dayton announced Thursday he will send seven members of the Minnesota National Guard to provide support on the island.

The Governor and Lt. Governor Tina Smith also put out a statement encouraging concerned Minnesotans to support qualified recovery and relief efforts.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency asks concerned individuals to support recovery and relief efforts in one or more of the following ways:

  1. MONETARY DONATIONS – Monetary donations allow organizations to purchase what is needed right now on the ground, putting money back into the local and regional economy.
  • Minnesotans can make a donation directly to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico by clicking here.
  • Minnesotans can also make financial donations to a qualified relief organization to help voluntary or charitable organizations continue to provide services to Hurricane Maria survivors.
  • The St. Paul Foundation has also started a fund, “El Fundo Boricua,” to raise money for Puerto Rico, and is matching all donations up to $250 through Oct. 19.
  1. DONATING GOODS – For individuals considering donating goods, FEMA notes that it's important to remember that managing unsolicited goods can take up valuable time from relief and recovery efforts.
  • Minnesotans can find qualified non-profit organizations accepting or registering individual and corporate in-kind donations here.
  1. VOLUNTEERING – For those interested in volunteering, FEMA asks that people show patience, and not transport themselves to the island of their own accord.
  • Anyone seeking an opportunity to get involved in response and recovery operations underway is encouraged to volunteer with local and nationally known organizations.