VA Maryland Health Care System
Volunteering in Puerto Rico
The VAMHCS staff joined other federal employees from across the country, approximately 6,000 professionals who participate in the National Disaster Medical System. Physicians, registered nurses, paramedics, and other medical and support professionals comprise teams of responders who provided support in the wake of the hurricane.
Kelly, the former Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System (DEMPS) Coordinator for the health care system, emphasizes that serving in disaster areas can be dangerous. "Emergency response is a very serious matter. It is not a vacation. The hours are long and hard, conditions are difficult and uncomfortable and volunteers need stamina, good health, and a true willingness to serve."
Despite the challenges, many who volunteer to serve after disasters don't regret their sacrifices. "The people you serve are the most appreciative people you will meet and you will quickly find that as much joy as you can bring someone else, you will receive tenfold in return. It's the best blessing you will ever receive," Kelly said.
"It has been an honor to work with such dedicated professionals. Our team dynamics and cohesiveness were seamless with a fierce determination to accomplish our mission in meeting the needs of the wonderful people of Puerto Rico," said Adams, a nurse who served in a Federal Medical Station where a generator enabled clinicians to serve oxygen-dependent and ventilator-dependent patients. "Medical professionals from across the country came to serve with the National Disaster Medical System in Puerto Rico in one of the largest federal medical operations ever launched for a disaster," she said.
Adelugba, an RN in the Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) and a VA Maryland employee for 15 years, did not hesitate to answer the call to serve. She worked with personnel from other federal agencies to create a hospital with two MASH units inside a civic center in the rural town of Manati. "In Manati, which is approximately one hour from the San Juan City, I provided nursing care for 13 days in 12-hour shifts. We provided care for bed-bound patients requiring--in most cases-- total care," Adelugha said.
She assisted patients with compromised breathing due to ventilator dependency, compromised skin due to large decubitus wounds, and others who needed tube feedings and general care. "The work was intense, but it was also rewarding because the people of Puerto Rico were very grateful and appreciative of the service we provided as VA nurses. I took care of them just as I would anywhere else. What I would not forget is the resilience of the people and how thankful the patients and their family were for our presence," she said. "I want all my colleagues to know that volunteering or simply giving back is very fulfilling. It gives me joy to know that I was there and I made a difference."
For Diehl, a VA employee for more than four years, where she was sent to serve didn't matter as long as she could help. She originally was slated to travel to Houston, but instead was deployed to Puerto Rico. She served a Veteran who lost electricity and running water at his home. "He'd come in every night because he had a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line and needed to receive intravenous antibiotics. During the day, he could see well enough to administer them to himself. He really didn't need assistance, but I would help clean the port and change his dressing. He spoke English, and he told me I was his angel. Every night before he left, he'd kiss me on each cheek," she said.
Silva, a nurse practitioner who has worked for VA for more than a decade, spent two weeks in Puerto Rico with more than 180 other VA employees who came from across the U.S. to help, some as far away as Alaska. "At the time I was there, most of the island lacked power. While the main VA hospital in San Juan was operational, the outlying VA clinics on the island were either destroyed or lacked power," she said. "The Puerto Rican staff was warm and grateful for our assistance. Many of these employees had not had power in their homes for several weeks and were essentially camping out in their homes.. It was inspirational to me that they came to work every day with such resilience, dedication and positive attitudes," Silva added.
After watching a few segments on CNN about the devastation in Puerto Rico, VA Maryland assistant nurse manager and member of the VA response team since 2013, Hart volunteered to help fellow citizens on the island. "While there, I worked at the Federal Emergency Medical Shelter in Manati. The first night proved extremely difficult with very limited supplies," he said. "I learned to compromise and put on my creative hat. One particular morning while changing a soiled diaper, I noticed that my patient's shirt was soaked with urine. Due to the limited supplies and, of course, no gowns, I took off his shirt, placed an extra blanket on him, obtained some washing detergent and washed his shirt in the men's bathroom sink."
The one thing Hart says he will never forget is that each morning around 6 a.m., a patient's husband would play his guitar and sing. For the day shift volunteers who were still sleeping, it became a daily wake up call," he said. "Sometimes in life we have to step outside of our comfort zone."
For Didley, RN, an Air Force Veteran and a clinical nurse reviewer, volunteering to assist fellow Americans did not require second guessing. "I immediately wanted to go and help out." She spent two weeks working 12-hour shifts advocating for patients by noticing needed changes in their medicines and treatment plans that might have gone missed otherwise due to the chaos and devastation that frustrated existing systems and processes.
"I noticed my first patient's blood-soaked bandages and bruising. After reviewing his chart, I realized that he was still receiving aspirin and heparin injections and immediately consulted with the charge nurse about getting his labs drawn," Didley said. She advocated for a change in treatment plan—which was accepted—and she found the patient more comfortable the following day. When she noticed another patient in distress, she alerted providers, who quickly transferred him to the emergency department. "The next day, I learned that the patient had appendicitis, and it was caught just in time," she said.. "I felt great pride helping my fellow veterans and taking care of our fellow Americans."
Only a few people understand what it means to be deployed to serve after a disaster and the need to be in a continual state of readiness. Some VAMHCS employees served multiple tours in Puerto Rico, returning with great joy in their hearts--despite the long hours and difficult conditions—knowing their work made a difference.
"This was an extremely rewarding life changing experience for me. In the end we knew we made a difference," Adams said.