The Medical Mission to Maricao Part 3

100×35. Upon the Longest Mile of My Volunteer Humanitarian Journey.

The Medical Mission to Maricao Part 3

The year 2019, had been a very busy year, for my wife and me, although leading a church and taking care of our people’s safety and other business in Puerto Rico, was beginning to take a toll on our bodies. Together we had logged up lots of frequent flyer airline miles. As Puerto Rico continued hurting financially its recovery remained slow. Believing that we could help boost the local economy, instead of continuing to rent countless Airbnbs, which were all the time, mostly owned by off-island people and very few locals that could afford, tourism was in decline, just like other businesses, the few economic dollars entering the country wasn’t staying in, but rather flying off the island.

By the end of 2018, we had purchased a little house that was in much, much need of major repairs, and had to receive a complete overhaul, before it would become anywhere near being livable. However, became a bit more skeptical of whom we rented from and chose to only rent from Puertoricans-based Airbnb owners. So my travels down here now became more personal and oftentimes, of sporadic humanitarian in nature, such as when an organization might have reached out to one of our associates in our sister churches, who might have contacted us, wondering, where their people, service and monies might best be suited and needed on the island? I would often use my own money to travel down here to serve as their guide, provide translation, roof repair, painting, scraping, or serve in any other capacity of support, where I might be needed.

By the time the beginning of summer rolled around, I had already made about six or seven trips down, all while still periodically driving up to Connecticut from NYC to check up on our home, which had now been placed on the market, I’ll still stop by to see if it needed anything done, change a bulb, adjust the cameras, Central air, etc… anything that could have increased a positive viewing of our home that alike most homes in Connecticut that were on sale wasn’t really moving.

Between air and car travel up and down the Connecticut countryside and mountainside Puerto Rican back roads, I was spent. And it was certainly starting to be felt, the body was again talking and reaching in thoughts of fear. It had been just a little over three years since my third and last back surgery, I’ve previously, had two prior, one being a spinal cord stimulator implanted, eight years prior, that had since broken inside of me and had since been removed, following each long air travels it might flare up from time to time, I’d often stop, in airports and do my stretches, to relieve my sacroiliac joint pain, apply a bit of pressure to my SI belt and keep on going… perhaps I’d somehow grown anesthetized to pain.

My wife, Damaris, was working super hard, between growing her church, the community and as a liaison between city hall her community of clergy… she was looking forward to her and upcoming sabbatical, and heading down to Puerto Rico, where she’d continued researching and working, although instead of only working, she’d finally get a chance to spend an entire month in the house we’d rented across from the beach. This being perhaps just about a mile away from where our home was being remodeled. I was looking forward to flying down to Miami, since I’d gotten permission from my oldest children to take the grandkids and spend time with them in Puerto Rico. However, this was of course just before the revolution of ousting their then-useless and rather embarrassing, governor Ricardo Rosello would come into full swing, and I’d have to immediately change plans.

The entire island nation, was up in a justifiable uproar… although it was mostly peaceful, it was quite unsettling to watch the news from afar. “Ricky Renuncia!!” Was the crying chant, which must be sung aloud by hundreds of thousands of people, throughout the entire San Juan. San Juan’s business area as well as most of its tourist districts zone was rather unapproachable, except for your being part of the manifestation and participation in the national protest to voice your political gripe.

Not knowing exactly how things might have turned out, I thought that instead of risking traveling down to Puerto Rico and getting stuck, unable to go anywhere, nor even get off the island, with the three grandkids, when we were ready to leave, it might be best, if I flew down to Miami, pick them up, then fly back to New York, and spend time with them between our country-home, in Marlborough Connecticut and our Manhattan apartment, which was far less risky, safer and secure, since at this point, Puerto Rico, was literally and figuratively continuing to bleed, financially, politically and emotionally.

I followed this plan and we had a successful trip with the kids, visiting several museums in New York City, Connecticut, and Rhode Islands orchards, spending a good time getting to know them, and getting them back home safe and in a timely manner down to their parents, just as promised. Nonetheless, of course, they were a bit disappointed, since they were really looking forward to spending time with Damaris on the beach and at the beach house. So was my wife, who was also looking forward to spoiling the heck out of them… and I was rather sad, since, I’d spent lots of money on airplane travel accommodations and had gotten very little to no rest, while being the sole one responsible, for serving and meeting their every needs all by myself. It wasn’t easy, but that’s what I had promised them, and did not want to disappoint in any way.

That summer, was also a milestone birthday, since I was turning 60 that July and was looking forward to the big celebration Damaris and the family had prepared for me down here on the beaches of Patillas. This was a blast that helped me recover as I felt celebrated and appreciated. Here I’d spend the rest of the month of August, with Damaris, resting, relaxing and just being a beach bum, before heading back home to New York City.

As 2019 drew to a close, I’d flown back down to check on the now almost completed renovation of our little beachfront house, we’d rescued from the rubble, paid off the contractor his final checks, and purchased our bed, hammocks, a few pieces of much-needed furniture, dishes, etc, since ours were all in our apartment in New York City and in our Marlborough Connecticut little country home. I believe the day of arrival was around December 11, and that same day, the ground around the southern coast of Puerto Rico began to shake, and it shocked periodically almost every other day for the rest of that month. Of course, my wife, Damaris could not accompany me, since she had to run the church, Christmas was right upon us, and as I’d like to remind our friends who at the time wondered about my spending Christmas Eve alone, that “after all, the United Church of Christ, is a Christian church, which is in fact all about the birth of baby Jesus?” Either way, she would fly down and join me following her Christmas service, and we would celebrate that following day.

Although, culturally for many Puerto Ricans, that actual big celebration day, is not as much Christmas nor even New Year’s, as much as it is January six, their Three Kings Day celebration. We’d gotten ourselves all prepared to head down to Juana Diaz, a town south of Patillas, where we have our beach house, and my poor wife being such a proud, dedicated, culturally grounded Puerto Rican, who loves her tradition and whose heart lights up at all of these cultural loving events, had been looking forward to it for months. Unfortunately, that’s the day the ground shook hard. She was in the bathroom and I was laying in bed, although I would sometimes tend to be a deep heavy sleeper, but was woken up. When I asked her if she’d felt anything? She said “No.” This is pretty much understandable, if one is standing in the shower and water is pouring down one’s head, versus laying flat on a bed.

Either way, the actual report followed and we got ready and headed out to Juana Diaz later that day to listen to some music, purchase some arts and crafts, eat some good food, and have as much fun as one could have, considering the situation. Although no loss of life had been reported the music played on.

We got back home that night, continued our own little celebration up on our terrace overlooking the Caribbean Sea, went to bed that night, and around 5:00 AM that following morning, we were awakened once again by another earthquake, this one being almost twice as strong as the one experienced the day before. We jumped up to rush to get our clothing on and ready to run, and apparently so did all of our neighbors, given the fact that our home is right across the street from the sea… we feared the reports of a possible tsunami, that fortunately for us, it didn’t come.

What did take place however, was that apparently the epicenter was right near the main towers serving electricity to most of the island, and after being almost a year, without electricity for a large number of Puerto Rican people, they were once again in the dark. They again had no water and no electricity.

Several of our friends and colleagues from Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, often visited and gathered at our house in the Marlborough countryside, as a former merchant seaman, I’ve always prided myself on being a trained survivalist, while they often joke that if in case of Armageddon, they’ll try and make it out of the city of Hartford and up to our home since they knew that if they made it to our home they’d be safe, sheltered and fed well as they survived, until the catastrophe would be taken under control.

However this time around, I felt naked and unprepared. I had nothing, not a candle, not a flashlight, not even a pocket knife with me, since the TSA agent had confiscated the one that I’d mistakenly forgotten and left in one of the side pockets of my leather backpack I’d taken up in the mountains of Orocovis while conducting missionary trips a few months ago. I’ve always had a machete, some pliers, rope wires a can of kerosene, a can of food, and all of those survival-type homemade instruments needed in case of emergency. I’d always pride myself on being ready, be it, on land or upon the seas. So much so that when famed Belizean Garifuna musician, James Lovel, Lucy Blanco, and friends, visited our home in Connecticut, they jokingly nicknamed me Mcgaiver, after a now-fame historic TV adventurous series character of the 1980’s. Feeling vulnerable wasn’t in my vocabulary… and although, I felt down, I still did not feel defeated. Later that morning, We got into our rented car and drove out toward Route 3 North, what was usually a happy, busy road alongside the oceanfront, suddenly appeared dismal, dreadful, lonely, and sad.

Although it was now nearly eight o’clock in the morning and hardly anybody was on the road. We drove to the nearest breakfast place in the next town over at Maunabo, Salseo, which also housed a local hardware store. And after having breakfast, I purchased 4 cinder blocks.

Since our stove was electric, I had been collecting small dried branches from around the family farm, in order to burn them and create an acidity compost for a Ph. balance of the soil for my research in organic farming. We really had no large amounts of food, since we were scheduled to head back to New York City in a couple of days, but we did have some good wine and a bag full of delicious Puertorican pasteles, my mother-in-law, Lucy had made for us to enjoy on Three Kings Day.

After purchasing the cinder blocks and throwing them in the back of our hatchback SUV, we continued driving up the road, all the way into Humacao, and as I drove, I was continuously bothered by a strange and eerie feeling. It was almost as if God was talking to me, as I was moved by a somewhat out-of-body spiritual experience, which appeared to indicate to me that I couldn’t just head back home and leave these people all alone with no water and no light, without doing something.

My thoughts were then interrupted by a talk radio program, that was discussing the need for more solar systems on the island and the accessibility of more companies providing such. It was then I requested my wife to write the name down of the company executive who was being interviewed on the program.

As our minds are in a sort of synchronized mode switch back to our early thoughts, which were, about “how were we going to figure out how to help out?”

As we got back home that afternoon and walked across the street to dip our toes in the once and pondered a bit more on what to do in order to organize, once back in New York… That night, as we got back home and sat in the backyard, under the gazebo, I set the bricks, broke the branches into smaller pieces to fit my makeshift cinderblock stove, and employed one of the grates from our oven, to cook up the delicious pasteles for dinner, a bright idea surfed into my wife’s active brain, and she immediately began to share, “let’s do a medical mission!” Suggesting almost aloud… and I immediately thought, almost as twice as loud, what I thought was to myself, “Well let’s go ahead, we now have all of the connections in place, let’s make them work again for the greater good… let’s do it!” Uttering the famous United Church of Christ motto, after all, “God is still Speaking!”

We continued to boil and cooked those pasteles over the makeshift wood stove, and enjoyed them, with a delicious bottle of Three Kings Day Merlot, gifted to us by our brother and sister-in-law, while giving thanks to God for our lives and the privilege and love afforded to us. Too afraid to sleep inside the house that night, due to the continued aftershocks throughout the day, my wife, in fear of another earthquake, slept under the gazebo, with the moon and the stars shining upon her beautiful face. Meanwhile, I went inside and hit the deck, as it had been a very long mentally exhausting, and tiring day, on my mind… I struggle with the fact that we were leaving our people behind in distress and we had yet to formulate a plan on how we could come back to help. As I dosed off to sleep, perhaps realizing that we had to get up and pack, then leave the following morning, to be at the airport by noon, on time for our flight back home to New York City.

We brainstormed ideas, and as we drove back to drop off the rental car, we noticed that some gas stations were already running out of gas and long lines of cars, were again beginning to form outside of them, fortunately for us, unsuspectingly we had filled up our car the day before.

Unsure how she did it, or even when she did it, but as we got back home, My súper dedicated, beautiful wife, Rev. Dr. Damaris Whittaker, had once again rallied all of her people together and together, they had already begun planning, thus implementing our next trip back for a full blast medical mission. Organizing it this time, between Dr. Ralph Rivera, professor of public health at the University of Puerto Rico, his best friend and colleague, Dr. Heriberto Marín, also from the University of Puerto Rico, Dr. Jesús Alvelo of AMAR, Dra. Karen Shearers from Yale University, and apparently they had brought all of their friends together, also gathered their friends, and then some more… all of them ready to converge and meet up in Puerto Rico to conduct a blanquette medical mission by February 7th exactly a month after that last big earthquake that shook the southern part of the island, leaving thousands homeless.

Damaris and I arrived the night before in San Juan, with Dr. Karen, booked our room, and headed for a quick meal, since we had to be up early at 4:00 AM that following morning. We had a two-and-a-half-hour drive up the mountain to the severely damaged town of Maricao, however, on the way there we had to stop to pick up, our CNN Crew. Yes, you’ve read this right! Due to the severe political climate, misconceptions, and a combination of other misleading factors, followed by the continued, ongoing disasters in the island nation, the support for Puerto Rico, was now beginning to dwindle. Including voices coming out of the White House, in Washington, D.C., we’re beginning to sound skeptical and we brought with us a reputable journalist, Nora Nuez from a credible established, international news institution, such as CNN, together with her camera crew.  Of course, we had to drive a few minutes outside of San Juan and pick them up at Monte Yedra, which was on our way heading south.

I had driven those mountains of Puerto Rico so often that by now, my wife thought it be appropriate for me to take the wheel. The drive was long and treacherous, I was on one cup of coffee and had very little sleep… no time for breakfast, since we had already fallen behind and had to catch up. As we drove through ‘La Cordillera Central,’ and passed the mountains range, I’d sometimes look back in the rearview mirror and see rocks rolling down the mountains and falling to the ground we had just passed, but said nothing, I didn’t want to create panic but instead prayed in silence and joke with our team, whom now teased our team leader, Damaris, since she did not allow us to drive around, searching for more coffee stops on the way… we had a long, long way to go, and we had already fallen far behind the caravan.

As we arrived at the indicated gathering point, at a baseball park in the town square of Maricao, there were about three hundred and fifty volunteers, medical, psychology, social workers, nurses, public health specialists, students, and treatment team members from across the spectrum that had showed up from all over the United States that morning, ready to join hands with the Puerto Rican Health Brigades, in Maricao, Puerto Rico. All joyful, happy, and glad to be there… this was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen in the Caribbean. Our diversity in colorful T-shirts indicated that of the broad treatment plan we could serve.

Although it was a long, long day. We divided into separate teams and spread out, we canvassed throughout most of the town, going house to house for hours… searching and finding people, who might need help and providing aid and a bit of relief to them. Fortunately, I was in the group that was part of the mental health team, being formed primarily with the graduate psychology students of Universidad Albisu a couple of medical students extraordinaire from Universidad de Puerto Rico, and our good friend, Dr. Heriberto Marín. It was a long hard working day for us.

However, I believe my wife and the other teams had the worst part of town, where judging from their videos posted by CNN,  they faced a much more immediate need, pressing to attend. On the drive back to San Juan, we drove right into the sunset of beautiful colors, bursting with hues of purples, yellows, oranges, streaks of whites, greens, and crimson that turned to blues. Another joyful volunteer and a complete success!

We’ll then drop our journalist’s team off at their hotels, then head to The Condado to our hotel rooms, drop our bags off, take showers, then head out to treat ourselves to well-deserved seafood dinners. A lot of work, which for a short while we believed that we’d never pull off, but again, we were rather blessed, and we did.

All and all, a wonderful blessing!

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