Puerto Rico

When I was twelve, I went on a medical mission to Puerto Rico. I remember the crowds in San Juan—the people leaning against the airport windows. I remember the mishmash of traffic, of how because there was no regulation on what horns you could use, regular drivers blared police sirens. Outside the city, there was the jungled roll of the mountains. There was the sudden delight of a Baskin Robins. And there was the little restaurant in the middle of nowhere that we walked to when our bus broke down—a place that served the best chicken I had ever tasted (because, I later deduced, it had just been killed). 

Our clinic was in the mountains. But we stayed in a cinderblock bunkhouse that was on the beach. It was low. It had dorm rooms and a community shower. It had no outer doors. At night, when I stumbled across the hall to the bathroom, a crab skittered in the corridor. What I realize now that this structure was built to survive hurricanes. The wind would blow, the tides would rise, the building would flood, and then dry out. I imagine that in the mid century, folks had built bunkers like this throughout the island. You and I have lived in a hurricane lull since the 1960s. But those old islanders had grown up with the reality that when the storms came, you couldn’t ever keep them out.

In the mountains, we worked in a building that sat on stilts on account of the mudslides. I was the pharmacist’s assistant. My job was to sit by the stairs that led from the dentists (who made camp under the house) to the medical doctors (who had their exam rooms up top). At twelve, I couldn’t really handle medicine, so I gave packets of Tylenol and Fibertrim to people who didn’t need anything else. I made friends with a stray dog. I watched the fog in the valley. I listened to the cries of the dentist patients who endured tooth extractions with nothing more than novocain. I ate beans and rice in my medical scrubs. When I got home, my mother hugged me and treated me for lice. Then we missionaries had a potluck for our families, where we showed our commemorative slides.

The thrust of this trip waited to reveal itself to me until some point when I was in high school. During some dream, or day dream, or moment during a French test, I made the realization that among all the people who stood in line for my Fibertrim—among all the elderly, and the new mothers, and the soft-spoken men—some of them were, in fact, very sick. Despite what the pharmacist told me, I wasn’t giving all of our patients party favors. I was giving some of them consolation. I was giving Tylenol to people who had diabetes, and cancer, and heart disease—to people our penicillin and novocain could never help. And while I didn’t know that then, I’m sure that they did.

The truth of our helplessness in Puerto Rico came upon me late, like the spread of a burn. But like a burn, it has marked me. And I feel it all over again when I see how, in the wake of Maria, we continue to neglect that island. It enrages me that just this weekend Trump tweeted 17 times about the NFL, and not once about Maria. It enrages me that in front of the Spanish Prime Minister, Trump gave his administration’s storm response “tremendous reviews,” as he called it, while in the same week, he blamed Puerto Rico’s “massive debt” and “broken infrastructure” for the reason that Maria would put that island in “deep trouble.” It enrages me that a dozen years after Katrina, 3.5 million Americans wait in Puerto Rico, while the nursing homes have non-functioning elevators, and the stores have lines for blocks, and nearly half the populace still waits for clean water. It enrages me that our so-called president says that the reason it’s taking so long for us to help our brethren is because “you can’t just drive to Puerto Rico.” It has been a week since Maria hit—and may I remind you that being a hurricane, we knew for days ahead of time, where Maria would generally fall. It has been a week, and the mayor of San Juan has sent us what she calls an SOS. And it wasn’t until yesterday that we deployed our largest hospital ship from Norfolk to Puerto Rico. It will leave port in the next three days. It will reach Puerto Rico another five days after that. In the meantime, according to the mayor, medics have been on the island for two days, and still don’t know where they’re supposed to go. 

It enrages me that we Americans couldn’t do more to help one of our territories when I was twelve, and that we simply will not do more to help them now–and that both of those instances probably stem from the same colonialist reason. Trump says he’ll arrive in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, which is around the same day that the hospital ship will depart. I hope the Puerto Ricans don’t cheer him. I hope we don’t cheer when he comes home. With his malice, negligence and incompetence, he has already found a variety of ways to put blood on his hands. But over the next few days, he could could add the death of thousands.

(Originally posted September 27, 2017)

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