Lisa Fortuna with medicine

Lisa Fortuna prepares to fly to Puerto Rico with donated medication for victims of Hurricane Maria. Photo courtesy Lisa Fortuna.

When natural disasters strike, the health care community often responds in full force, providing assistance and expertise in person or by sending much-needed aid in the form of food or medical supplies.

Hurricane Maria’s recent devastation in Puerto Rico has given many physicians a personal mission to help firsthand. With supply chains disrupted, medications have been slow to reach the country, and many Puerto Ricans have had to travel much farther than normal, and in dangerous conditions, to get necessary medications.

In addition, lack of electricity on the island means that some hospitals do not have a reliable way to keep medications cool, making insulin unusable. Patients face the same situation in their homes, and pediatric patients face an especially great risk. Meanwhile, waterborne diseases, like conjunctivitis, remain widespread because of flooding.

I traveled to Puerto Rico at the end of November to deliver medications donated by Boston Medical Center (BMC) to hospitals and communities in need. I initially heard requests for medications through The Boston Foundation and Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico. Since I was born in Puerto Rico, I began looking for a way to get there as soon as BMC’s medication-delivery project started taking shape. I teamed up with Project HOPE (Health Opportunities for People Everywhere) — an organization that delivers medication, supplies, volunteer help, and medical training to those in need — to travel to Puerto Rico and provide services in towns, as well as rural and inner island mountain areas.

I worked closely with BMC’s pharmacy teams to secure the needed medications and follow guidelines to safely transport them to Puerto Rico. I brought antibiotics, insulin, and medications for chronic diseases — such as hypertension, diabetes, and thyroid issues — as well as creams and eye drops, totaling nearly $27,000 in vital supplies.

As the medical director for child and adolescent psychiatry services at BMC, I knew my mission would be twofold: getting medications to those in need and providing mental health counseling to a struggling and fraught population. I traveled to some of the hardest-hit areas that still are recovering, made house calls, and helped those grappling with the physical and emotional tolls of the storm.

Lisa Fortuna sets up for a mental health consultation visit in San German, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy Lisa Fortuna.

Lisa Fortuna sets up for a mental health consultation visit in San Germán, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy Lisa Fortuna.

house with no roof

Many Puerto Rican hospitals and homes remain without electricity, making it difficult to store medications that need to be refrigerated. Photo courtesy Lisa Fortuna.

My Project Hope team provided care for 50 to 100 people each day during a two-week period. Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder have taken a toll on many people. I’ll never forget a couple we saw standing in front of their home, which had no roof, with all of their destroyed belongings in a pile next to the house. They both needed emotional support and medical care. The man would have been out of insulin within 24 hours, and the woman was taking her medication for hypothyroidism every other day to extend her supply. We offered all we could — support, medications, and connections to local leaders to assist with disaster recovery resources and health care.

I also used this trip to reach out and network with Puerto Rico’s local health care providers who, moving forward, bear the responsibility of the population’s health. They must maintain relationships with other providers and aid organizations as the island rebuilds, and my efforts to help with their relief certainly are not over with my return to the United States.

If you’re interested in supporting Puerto Rico relief efforts, consider donating to United for Puerto Rico.