Three days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, leaving the U.S. territory in shambles, Duke pathologist and native Puerto Rican Edgardo Parrilla Castellar, MD, PhD, finally made his way onto the island.
Parrilla Castellar figured he had skills and knowledge that would be of use, even if his medical specialty was unusual: "I push slides for a living, but I felt confident that I could help many with my medical background. At the very least, I could take vital signs."
Parrilla Castellar spearheaded a small group of doctors, nurses and allied health staff – most Puerto Ricans – who wanted to offer their assistance.
What he and his group saw when they landed was heartbreaking.
"We all cried at some point," he said. "I had lived through hurricanes – Hugo, Georges – but I had never seen anything as bad as this."
Amid the chaos, he and his fellow good Samaritans gained the trust of the mayor of San Juan and became an independent medical unit under the name of "First Medical Relief for Puerto Rico."
"The mayor sent us to the places with the highest need, and we ended up treating so many people, most of them elderly," he said. "They had no food or water, they were diabetics, there was no way to get them to hospitals, and medical conditions were only getting worse."
Parrilla Castellar brought with him a huge stash of over-the-counter drugs and medical supplies from the U.S., – pain relievers, antiseptic swabs, bandages – and the team quickly ran through it during their nine-day trip, donating what remained to the local hospitals.
"We responded as best we could," he said. "It's incredible how much we did, but also how much is still needed."
Courtesy of Blair Callahan, Duke Health