On Friday nights, you’ll find a handful of Moffitt physicians and advanced practice professionals boarding a plane bound for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. They often pay their own airfare – and even donate to buy the medicines and supplies they’ll need for the busy weekend ahead. Come Sunday, they’ll be flying back to Tampa, tired but ready for their patients at Moffitt on Monday morning.
Since mid-October, these weekly Moffitt missions have been bringing needed medical care to rural areas devastated by Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20. As part of Moffitt’s Puerto Rico Response workgroup, BMT physician Melissa Alsina has been coordinating the efforts with doctors on the island, targeting a different town with each visit. These Puerto Rican colleagues spread the word to make sure cancer patients are made aware, but the volunteers are most likely to find themselves dealing with primary medical needs – making house calls to places where few homes are left standing.
Dr. Alsina shares the story of their visit to a remote area in Utuado, a town near the center of the island, its sole access bridge destroyed by the category 4 storm. A makeshift rope-and-pulley system allows locals to load baskets full of food, water and necessities for their fellow Puerto Ricans in the isolated town. It’s heartening to see such cooperation, says Dr. Alsina, but "it makes you wonder – how is this going to get better? It will take a long time."
Weekly trips are planned through Dec. 17, at which point Dr. Alsina says she and her Moffitt colleagues will reassess the program’s impact and remaining needs.
Moffitt has strong connections to Puerto Rico, including a partnership with the Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico to facilitate high-quality research, teaching and outreach efforts that focus on the Hispanic population. Many team members have family and roots in Puerto Rico, including Dr. Alsina who earned her MD, completed her residency and the first year of her hematology fellowship in San Juan.
For her, the gratitude for these volunteer efforts is as sincere as that of the everyday Puerto Ricans being helped. "I have no words to express how much we appreciate your effort and kindness," she says. If you would like to donate in support of Moffitt’s Puerto Rico Relief efforts, visit Moffitt.org/Give and direct your gift to Other in the drop-down menu. Be sure to type "Puerto Rico" in the Details for "Other" box.