On our fourth day, we loaded our cars with supplies, grabbed our stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs and headed out to the streets of Río Piedras, San Juan. Even though it was only a 20 minute drive from Miramar where our hotel stands, the contrast was evident. We rode into an area plagued with beaten-up shops and abandoned houses covered with shrubs, in the middle of which was our base for the day; underneath large bridge. Uncertain of what to expect, we kept our minds open; ready to serve in any small way.
It was under this bridge that we met with representatives from the non-government organization, Intercambios Puerto Rico (http://intercambiospr.org/) Since 2008, Intercambios has been providing clean needles to IV drug users in different cities in Puerto Rico. The organization has since started offering other necessary services to the community. While speaking with Jennifer, one of the representatives, we learned that the branch we met with focuses on providing mental health and social work services to the homeless population in Farjado and San Juan several times per week. The large bridge under which we gathered acted as a central spot where the individuals of the Río Piedras community could conveniently meet. Additionally, it was interesting to find that though services provided by Intercambios are limited, the organization expands their effect by collaborating with other nonprofits such as Coalición de Coaliciones.
After speaking with the representatives, we populated the table they assigned to us with the supplies we had. One by one, individuals, some of whom had not been to a doctor in months, trickled in for blood pressure and glucose checks, wound care or simply to thank us for being present. We also had the joy of providing sandwiches and water before or after people made their way over to our table. As frustrating as it was to know that longitudinal care was not something we could offer, the gratitude expressed by each patient made it worthwhile. Furthermore, this experience has made us more aware of the assistance that this particular community needs. Now we will be better equipped to serve in the upcoming week.
While one part of our team served in the neighborhood, a few others attended the “Respuestas al Consumo de Opioides en Puerto Rico” conference. The conference highlighted various issues associated with the opioid crisis in Puerto Rico and the different strategies proposed to combat it. I particularly enjoyed a panel centered on the opioid crisis and the Justice system. The panelists discussed various legal measures that are being used to assist persons with a drugs addiction. This brought a new perspective to me as a medical student: here, an issue which I initially considered totally medically was being positively addressed legally.
Everyday while in Puerto Rico, I am constantly reminded of the power of unity and positivity. Whether it is collaborating in the effort against poverty and homelessness or drug addiction, unity and positivity are crucial components for triumph. When we unite ideas are coalesced to create workable ones. When we remain positive, we gain the strength to overcome the insurmountable.
-Nishone Thompson, MS3