Carbondale doctor aids in hurricane relief in Puerto Rico and Houston
When Dr. Chad Knaus and his team members with Heart to Heart International arrived in Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, their plan was to not really have a plan.
“When we first showed up, we knew to take it day by day,” said Knaus, a physician from Carbondale.
Heart to Heart’s mission is “improving health access, providing humanitarian development and administering crisis relief worldwide,” according to its website. Heart to Heart connects medical professionals and other volunteers with necessary contacts and resources.
Knaus’ team — consisting of three doctors, one physician’s assistant and a few other nurses and EMTs — was the second team Heart to Heart sent to Puerto Rico after Maria, which struck the U.S. territory on Sept. 20. Knaus spent the first two weeks of October there. His first trip with Heart to Heart was a month earlier to Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
“In Houston, the big thing was flooding,” Knaus told the Post Independent, adding that some areas were completely underwater while others were unaffected — sometimes even on the same street.
“In Puerto Rico, the big thing was everything. It was like a bomb went off. It was complete destruction,” he said.
Knaus and his team visited small mountain towns in Puerto Rico including Caguas, Barranquitas and Jayuya. In Caguas, the team set up a clinic in the rec room of a six-floor apartment building for the elderly. With college out of session, medical students helped the team with tasks such as checking vital signs, handling logistics and translating. Knaus said the team saw anywhere from 30 to 60 patients a day.
The team would also help staff hospital emergency rooms at night and run mobile clinics during the day. Its work was concentrated in small, under-served towns away from the bustling capital. Knaus said all the major players were in San Juan — from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the military — where there was electricity and access to water.
But overall, Knaus said there was a lot of chaos in the leadership.
“There was little leadership or instruction from both the Puerto Rican and U.S. government,” Knaus said.
He praised members of the Army, whom he said he saw the most — from clearing streets, providing water and performing engineering tasks.
Knaus said he was with FEMA once. Knaus said organizations would partake in “assessment missions,” he said, where they’d fly a helicopter around the island for an hour for $20,000 and identify areas in need where Knaus’ team and others were already active.
Knaus said government officials would also stay in $300 hotel rooms and have nice meals out, highlighting the importance to donate only to organizations that put monetary donations purely to relief efforts instead of lining pockets. But, in such a chaotic state, said organizations can be hard to determine, Knaus admitted.
Heart to Heart is set to keep sending teams to Puerto Rico through at least Christmas.
“They’re actually getting busier, which isn’t good. It isn’t normal. It’s unprecedented,” Knaus said. He added that teams are now seeing an average of 100 patients a day.
The increased number of patients is due to the cumulative effects of people being without access to electricity, clean water and medical treatment. Knaus described it as the “disaster after the disaster.”
Despite being at the heart of unprecedented disaster, Knaus described the people of Puerto Rico as appreciative and gracious.
“They kept trying to feed us everywhere we went,” he said. “But they’re really suffering.”