Our week began with new intentions. Out of disappointment towards not going to Haiti arose a new sense of responsibility towards Puerto Rico and its beautiful people. Over the past week, we have been gifted the opportunity to meet these people, hear their stories, build relationships, and provide what services we can.
Seeing the devastation left by Hurricane Maria, we have often had to remind ourselves that we are still in the United States. Yet, through fallen trees, leaking rooftops, and crumbling walls, the resilience and kindness of the Puerto Rican people has never failed to shine through. In Humacao, we were welcomed into homes with open arms and offerings of cold water bottles. A gentleman who received medical care under a bridge of Rio Piedras gifted our team one of his only possessions – watches he had intended to sell. He was profusely apologetic he did not have the correct batteries but insisted that we purchase the batteries and keep the watch to remember him. We wish to become doctors in order to serve others, but the benevolence that pervades Puerto Rican culture has showed us what “to serve” truly means.
We experienced such kind gestures even beyond our medical relief efforts. Walking to a nearby beach after a long day’s work, a homeless gentleman selflessly stopped traffic so our sizable team of 12 people could cross the street safely. Acts of kindness such as these remind us of our commonalities as human beings. Under the bridge in Rio Piedras, we were united by something as simple as turkey sandwiches (turns out, food is delicious no matter what race, religion, or ethnicity people identify with). Sharing a simple meal was all that was needed to build enough trust and rapport with the community to allow us to address their blood pressure and glucose levels.
In all honesty, this trip is not our annual surgical relief trip to Haiti. We do not have the current capability or capacity to address acute surgical issues in Puerto Rico as we did in Haiti. Our success here cannot be measured by the number of patients we see or operations we perform. And that’s okay.
But even though this is not our usual Haiti trip, we have found some similarities: we have been humbled by similar smiles and gratitude we found in Haiti, we have been welcomed with kindness and warmth, we have been given the opportunity to learn how to care for people who are far less fortunate. The Puerto Rican people seem grateful for the simple reminder that they have not been forgotten, and we ourselves are equally grateful for the opportunity to show the people here that we care. We are working to ensure that our primary care efforts and medical supplies distributions will linked many Puerto Ricans who fall into the medical coverage gap with services that would not have otherwise been available. Furthermore, we hope that the partnerships we are building and research we are conducting will go towards building a surgical capacity network much like what exists in Haiti.
As we head into the second half of our two-week trip, there are no feelings of disappointment. Only a sense of hope towards the future and a realization that there is only one rule on this island: you’ve got to be kind.
Kareem Al-Mulki, MS4