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Puerto Rico Hospitals Are Struggling To Provide Care After Hurricane Maria


In Puerto Rico, the government says one of its top priorities is restoring power to the island's hospitals. A week after Maria, they're operating on just emergency generator power, struggling to provide care at a time when it's needed most. NPR's Greg Allen reports from San Juan.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: San Jorge Children and Women's Hospital in San Juan has been open since the storm, seeing an increasing number of patients with problems related to Hurricane Maria.

AUBREY: (Crying).

ALLEN: Julio Alicea was there today with his granddaughter, Aubrey. The 8-month-old came down with respiratory problems a day after the storm. Because they live in the neighborhood, they were able to get to the hospital quickly.

JULIO ALICEA: We are lucky. Inside the islands, some roads are, you know, hard to reach - hard to get.

ALLEN: San Jorge Vice President Domingo Cruz Vivaldi says since the storm, the hospital staff has seen a spike in the number of people needing care.

DOMINGO CRUZ VIVALDI: We have seen some broken bones. Also, we have some cuts. And then because of the conditions, we have asthma patients, we have the diabetes patients who are unstable. People are not getting any kind of preventive medicine at this time.

ALLEN: In Puerto Rico, doctors' offices and walk-in clinics haven't reopened since the storm. Hospitals are the only place delivering health care to those who need it. Because of damage and a lack of power, several hospitals have been forced to shut down. For those remaining open - like San Jorge - Cruz says it's been a struggle.

CRUZ VIVALDI: Diesel doesn't come easy to the hospital - for a week already since Maria. Two days ago, we were without electricity from 6am to 2pm because we had no diesel.

ALLEN: With no power, Cruz says the hospital was forced to discharge 40 patients. Yesterday, the Army Reserve delivered 4,000 gallons of diesel - enough to power emergency generators until Saturday. Cruz says emergency generators, though, are just a backup and are likely to fail eventually if the hospital isn't reconnected to the power grid soon. Power was restored briefly earlier this week to the island's largest hospital, the Medical Center at the University of Puerto Rico.

JESUS VELEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ALLEN: Medical Center spokesman Jesus Velez says power was on for just a few hours before again going down. Since then, the hospital is back on emergency generators. At San Jorge Children and Women's Hospital, some employees have been living there since Hurricane Maria because their homes were destroyed. Security has also been an issue. Stores in the neighborhood have been robbed, and gas has been siphoned and stolen from employees' vehicles. Since the storm, Dr. Pedro Escobar says the staff has mostly been able to provide just emergency care. But he's a gynecological oncologist and concerned about his patients, many of whom, he says, had important treatments and surgeries postponed.

PEDRO ESCOBAR: We have hundreds and hundreds of patients that were either scheduled or they're getting chemo. So then, after that, they need to get operated on within four or five weeks. Otherwise, the outcomes are not going to be good.

ALLEN: Even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico's health care system was in trouble. Doctors and health care providers here have long asked Congress to boost Medicare and Medicaid payments to match those in the states. But with no power, little running water and a health care system that's stretched increasingly thin, Domingo Cruz says Puerto Rico now faces a humanitarian crisis.

CRUZ VIVALDI: If we don't get the help, something that is going to happen that is going to be a long-term problem for Puerto Rico. We are, right now, dealing with a crisis. So we need Congress, and we need the president to step up.

ALLEN: Working with Puerto Rican officials, the federal government has set up seven mobile clinics to help with trauma care. And the Trump administration says it's now dispatching a Navy hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, to Puerto Rico, arriving next week. Greg Allen, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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