(New York, NY: January 24, 2018) More than three months have passed since Hurricane Maria’s 155-mph winds plowed through Puerto Rico leaving the island severely crippled and desperate for help. The storm — which knocked out all power and most cell phone service — was the worst disaster to ever hit the Caribbean island, home to 3.4 million American citizens.
The island is slowly returning to normalcy with electricity and running water with basic medical needs being provided by many government and not-for-profit agencies. This outreach has been described by FEMA as the “largest federal response to a disaster” in American history. Still, some of the far islands off the Puerto Rican Coast are still reeling from Hurricane Maria,
A team of medical professionals from the American University of Antigua are now planning a medical camp at Vieques, an island off the Eastern Puerto Rican coast from February 9th through the 11th. “Pedro and I are very excited to lead this effort which is really driven by the same elements that made us choose this profession – empathy and a sense of global responsibility to those in need,” says Dr. Bilal Khan, a critical care and emergency physician and one of the two AUA graduates spearheading this effort, along with Dr. Pedro Torres. “Since Vieques is an Island, it has been difficult to access, which is why they are still suffering,” Dr. Khan explained.
Dr. Khan, of South Asian origin, now living in New York, had worked as an EMT and then went on to AUA 2007-2011. He completed his residency in Internal Medicine in NJ, Pulmonary Medicine at Norwalk Hospital and has just completed Critical Care Fellowship at Yale.
Dr. Khan’s former classmate, Dr. Torres, a fellow critical care and emergency physician whose family immigrated from Puerto Rico, says, “As former EMTs /Paramedics and now, we have been trained to work in these high-volume disaster situations. Our years of training and sharpening our tools give us a passion and hope to apply them to a greater purpose – not simply “another millennial supporting a cause.”
“Our mission on this trip is to serve the area of Vieques which is an island off the Eastern PR coast. This area of PR, due to its remote location, had been hard to reach. Consequently, the people have seen little relief. We expect 2,000 families, and plan to serve approximately 8,000 people,” says Dr. Khan, for whom this will be the first time leading a large-scale medical relief effort.
The team, consisting of medical and non-medical personnel, mostly AUA Alumni, plans to charter a boat to take them along with the supplies to the island, Vieques. The team has arranged with a local not-for profit organization, A la Mano Por Puerto Rico, in coordinating the logistics of the camp.
“The biggest obstacle is funding. We are in the process of finalizing the team and obtaining funds for the supplies, including medications, and other medical equipment,” says Dr. Khan. “As much we prepare, we can’t know exactly what to expect.” Each team member who volunteers for the mission will be paying their own flight and food, while the organizers are trying to pay for medical supplies and the chartered boat.
Dr. Khan and Dr. Torres studied at Stony Brook in NY, but didn’t think to collaborate until later. It was in 2008, when Bilal, then a second-year medical student at AUA, had to take his friend to the ER met Pedro, the on-call paramedic. They both re-connected . Pedro expressed an interest in medical school, “Bilal couldn’t have been more supportive.” Dr. Torres says.
“I gave him information about AUA and he ran with it. He hasn’t stopped running yet— as he’s currently completing his Emergency Physician training in PR and will then go on to a Critical Care fellowship,” says Dr. Khan. Their close relationship throughout the past decade has now resulted in a joint medical camp that is expected to serve the most affected people in this Island, Vieques. “We are fortunate to have met as young college freshman and to develop a bond that is allowing us to impact an area of the world in need. We hope this will be the first of many missions.”