Since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the American Cancer Society has been able to get a number of cancer patients off the island, thanks to four donated flights. The patients range in age from 2 to 74.
Our Southeast Region has been in high gear since the storm occurred, with all patient and provider calls from Puerto Rico being re-routed to the team in Tampa, where several staffers speak Spanish.
"We've had more than 125 patients contact us for support. Most of the patients we encounter are dealing with significant challenges -- no power, no water, and limited food, including nutritional supplements such as Ensure, lost or severely damaged homes, and limited or no access to pain medication or treatment," said Megan Wessel, MPH, vice president, Regional Cancer Control.
Our team in the Southeast has been working diligently to supply the patients with what they need, from lining up transportation and care on the island, to coordinating four humanitarian flights off the island. Those flights were courtesy of four generous donors: PepsiCo, Johnsonville, a Wisconsin-based sausage company; an anonymous donor from West Palm Beach; and a flight arranged by Board member Jorge Luis Lopez.
The work is not over once these patients reach the mainland. The Southeast Region team, in partnership with our colleagues around the country, has been working with our hospital partners to secure charity care. "It's extremely challenging, but we've been able to help in some cases," Megan said.
In addition, the team has been busy coordinating lodging and transportation here in the U.S. "Although the work is far from over, the efforts to date have been a remarkable example of the American Cancer Society coming together in a time of great need," Megan said.
On Friday, Oct. 13, the American Cancer Society was able to fly five cancer patients and their caregivers out of Puerto Rico so they can resume their cancer treatments in the U.S. We transported additional cancer patients off the island on Saturday. The other flights occurred earlier in month.
Friday's humanitarian mission was made possible by Johnsonville owners and ACS supporters, Ralph and Shelly Stayer, who donated the use of their private plane to help transport the cancer patients from Puerto Rico to the Orlando Executive Airport. From there, the patients were heading to a variety of locations, some to be with relatives, where ACS had arranged for treatment.
Watch a TV news story about the flight.
"Being part of this humanitarian flight gives me hope. The living conditions in the island are unbearable, and having to face cancer in the midst of it, it's really hard," said Xiomara Rodriguez, director of Communications, Southeast Region. "Hearing that ACS, with the help of generous donors, were able to help some patients and facilitate their access to care on the mainland was a like a bright shining beam of light in the darkness. As an ACS employee, I am extremely proud of the efforts. As a Puerto Rican living afar, this makes me feel like Puerto Rico is not facing this humanitarian crisis alone."
One of the patients on the Johnsonville pane, Jose Carrero, was diagnosed with cancer in June. He was in the hospital during hurricanes Irma and Maria. When he was released on Oct. 8, he had no water, no electricity, and no communications at his home. His daughter, Nilsa Carrero, who lives in North Carolina, reached out to ACS for help, saying her dad had a place with better care in the U.S. if he could only get there.
Puerto Rico is still struggling with water shortages and power outages. CNN reported Oct. 16 that only 13.7% of customers were getting power off the island's grid, down from 15% a week before that. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Sunday that he hopes to have 95% of power restored by December. About 64% of the population has running water, and there have been recent news reports about island residents drinking contaminated water. Islanders are having a tough time finding food and gas, as well.
Also on the Johnsonville plane was a volunteer from an Orlando church who was delivering water to the western side of the island, where the water shortage has been most severe. Also, on the flight were battery-operated fans and batteries of all sizes for our staffers there, paid for by the Southeast Region and our national senior Leadership team donated money to purchase battery-operated fans for our staff in Puerto Rico.
Patients remain at our Hope Lodge in San Juan, still being powered by a generator. Those patients are receiving treatment in the capital, a city with about 395,000 people.
PHOTOS: Pictured in the top image, from left: Lillian Santos, EVP, in Puerto Rico; a caregiver, a cancer patient, a PepsiCo representative, a 6-year-old patient, and her mom and dad. Those patients and caregivers left Puerto Rico on Saturday, on a plane supplied by PepsiCo. Pictured in the smaller image are cancer patients being interviewed by local media at the San Juan airport, before their flight to Florida last Friday.