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PEF nurse-heroes mend the lives of Puerto Ricans after Maria’s wrath


AT THE AIRPORT – PEF nurses pose for a photo before boarding a plane to San Juan. The Hurricane Maria volunteers are Carolyn Cole, Douglas Massey, Susan Williams, Justin Farrier (kneeling) Patricia Trowbridge and Llamara Padro-Milano. — Photo by Chris Runge

On Wednesday, October 4, six PEF-represented registered nurses boarded a plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico to offer their medical expertise and compassion to the victims of Hurricane Maria.

Joining 351 other volunteers, Carolyn Cole, Justin Farrier, Llamara Padro-Milano, Douglas Massey, Patricia Trowbridge and Susan Williams did not hesitate when they received an email from PEF President Wayne Spence asking for nurses to travel to an island where San Juan’s mayor described living conditions as “close to genocide.”

Some were motivated to go because of family ties, but all said they were eager to have the opportunity to help.

“It is in the hearts of nurses. Nurses go where they are needed,” said Cole, who works as a community mental health nurse at the Broome Developmental Disabilities Services Office.

They stayed at the Roberto Clemente Stadium in Carolina, where they slept on army cots and showered in cold water, keeping their eyes and mouths shut because it was contaminated. They were given cold dry sandwiches with one slice of ham and cheese for breakfast and lunch, and a bowl of very salty cold rice with a mystery meat for dinner. It rained every day. And in many cases, they had to rely on a translator.

There were pallets of food and water at the stadium, yet the volunteers who used two weeks of their own vacation time for this trip, pooled their money and spent $3,000 to buy water and other items to take with them as they trudged through mudslides and collapsed roads, and up mountains to municipalities such as Canovanas.

Williams, who works at the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center, described the landscape as if it had been ravaged by a tornado and fire, diminishing a beautiful and lush countryside and rain forest to “everything just being flattened and brown.”

The devastation of the land also affected animals. The lack of forage caused horses to die, lying stiff and motionless on the side of the road, a sight the nurses will long remember. And the things people said, such as the man who told Williams about his wife who had passed away just prior to Hurricane Maria’s arrival.

“The family had to evacuate and wrapped her body in plastic and tied it to a bed so it wouldn’t float away,” Williams said.

Looks of gratitude

Padro-Milano recalls a couple who have been married for 54 years, living in Cupey Bago where the cruel winds of Maria lifted away the roof on their home.

“They were using tea lights at night, so I gave the gentleman a small flashlight. The smile he gave me was such a gift, one I will carry in my heart forever. We checked their medications and worked with a community liaison for assistance with filing FEMA forms and obtaining tarps. The woman only wanted a tarp to cover her gas stove. It was the only stove in the neighborhood, and she cooked for her husband and other neighbors. Before I left, she hugged me and said, ‘When my house is fixed, come back and I will cook for you.’”

Cole talked about going house-to-house in little barrios (neighborhoods) providing whatever care was needed. They arrived at one home where an 87-year-old single man lived, and it had been overrun by cats and chickens.

“It was disgusting,” Cole said. “The nurses and one construction guy who was our tour guide went to a store to get mops, brooms, bleach, buckets, sponges and other supplies. We cleaned his entire home, and he was so very thankful. It was truly a humbling experience.”

The nurses set bones, cleaned out infected wounds in barrio clinics and comforted hospice patients.

Trowbridge, an RN at SUNY Stony Brook University Hospital, found an elderly woman who had been sitting in a lawn chair for a week. She was unable to walk, but was alert and did not suffer from any sort of dementia. Her home was uninhabitable. She would not leave her two dogs.

“We met a man on the street, and that helped us to communicate with her. We were finally able to get her help, and when we did follow-up, it felt good.

“There are so many cases that stood out, you are not going to forget those people,” Trowbridge said.

Beyond nursing

Farrier, an RN at SUNY Upstate University Hospital, played dual roles.

“I was with a team that had a volunteer who had gained experience in Haiti and South Africa. We set up water systems for people. That was a huge thing for me. We went through six different towns that had dire need for pure water. We went to a Home Depot and bought PVC piping and tapped off of their existing water collection systems. We gave them Sawyer straws and educated them on how to screw the straws, and to make sure they washed their hands before filling their buckets with fresh drinking water.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten and Llamara Padro-Milano.

For their outstanding humanitarian efforts, the nurses were honored at PEF’s 39th Annual Convention with a state proclamation, plaque, certificate and several rounds of standing ovations.

“None of us who went to Puerto Rico were looking for any acknowledgement,” Cole said. “This is what nurses do.”

Padro-Milano highlighted the resiliency of the Puerto Rican people saying, “No one complained and we saw neighbors helping neighbors, children helping parents, grandparents and babies. Puerto Rico will definitely pick itself up.

“But this story is not over. We really need the help of our union brothers and sisters. We are planning to do training and will go back. What is needed the most is solar lighting, filters for drinking water and a lot of love and good will,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten and Llamara Padro-Milano on CNN.

Farrier added, “If you can volunteer, then volunteer. A lot of people post things on Facebook such as pray for the people of Puerto Rico. Instead of putting it into words, put it in action. Volunteer, donate. Don’t just post words, follow your heart.”

DONATE NOW TO THE PEF Hurricane Relief Fund