By Ann Miller Baker
March 20, 2018 holds special meaning for many Puerto Ricans like Esteban Ocasio and his 80-year old mother Angelina Carle. The date marks six months since Hurricane Maria devastated their island home. It's also the day this pair will make their first trip back since an October 2017 humanitarian flight brought them to Tampa to continue Carle’s treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center.
That flight out was "God’s miracle," says Ocasio, though just making it to the plane was never assured. The two live in San Juan, where Carle underwent a partial mastectomy for metastatic breast cancer in May. Though their homes in the city were still standing after the storms, Ocasio says the devastation was beyond words. "No power. Everything was closed, so there was very little food. Only a few places were selling water, and rationing it to four small bottles a day for hundreds of people waiting in lines. With my mother still recovering from surgery, hygiene was very difficult." Getting the chemotherapy she needed in a timely fashion was out of the question.
Relatives stateside had a family member treated successfully at Moffitt and made phone calls to get Carle on the humanitarian flight. But getting to the chartered plane would take an hours-long cab ride across the debris-strewn island to the city of Ponce. That’s where Moffitt was gathering cancer evacuees along with priceless frozen cancer tissue samples bio-banked through its partners at Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU) for the return trip to Tampa.
Safely settled at Moffitt, Carle has been through two rounds of chemo with several hospitalizations along the way. She is now well enough to travel. And her caregiver son is eternally grateful. "Leaving behind all the horrible conditions at home for the chance to be treated at Moffitt has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lives. It’s like we were in a desert, and Moffitt was our oasis."
They were not alone in seeking Moffitt’s care after hurricanes Irma and Maria. Though Moffitt typically averages 40 patients per month from the island, that figure spiked over the past six months to more than 100 patients in October 2017 alone.
Moffitt delivered care directly to the island as well. From Maria’s landfall through the rest of 2017, Moffitt physicians and advanced practice professionals volunteered each weekend, flying often at their own expense to provide care and supplies to the hardest hit areas of Puerto Rico. Moffitt’s United Way campaign added an option to donate to Puerto Rico relief efforts. Donated goods were boxed and shipped. Even blood was collected through a special OneBlood/Moffitt blood drive.
And just weeks after the hurricane, Moffitt’s longstanding partnership with PHSU received renewal of a nearly $9-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health. The funding sustains a long-term collaboration to improve cancer outcomes in the Hispanic/Latino population through basic and clinical research, the creation of a unique Hispanic/Latino biobank and programs for cancer education and outreach.
One outreach example is an April 28th program in San Juan made possible through Moffitt’s Puerto Rico Advisory Council. Moffitt psychiatrist Dr. Margarita Bobonis Babilonia’s "Conversations about Cancer" will offer techniques for caregivers coping with the psychological impacts of stress and cancer.
It’s a topic Esteban Ocasio knows all too well. But he won’t be in San Juan for the presentation. "We are coming back to Tampa," he promises.
"Mother’s oncologist, Dr. Martine Extermann, is a brilliant physician. We have such faith in her and all the other doctors from Moffitt and the University of South Florida. We are seriously thinking of making Tampa our home."