Hospitals On The US Virgin Islands Are Destroyed And Doctors Are Running Out Of Critical Supplies

Brianna Sacks/ BuzzFeed News

SAINT THOMAS, US VIRGIN ISLANDS — First came Hurricane Irma, battering St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Less than two weeks later came Maria, another category 4 storm that blasted through the region, again hitting the island’s homes, infrastructure, and wrecking its two hospitals.

Surrounded by army vehicles, massive piles of debris, and mangled palm trees, Schneider Regional Medical, like the rest of the island, looks like it survived a bombing.

“People either survive or they don't in these situations,” said Dr. Brian Bacot, who has seen around 200 patients and has performed more than 15 surgeries since the hurricanes arrived. Bacot — an orthopedic surgeon who works in part at Schneider and at his own private practice — is now just taking anyone who comes to him in need.

Built in the early 1980s and the only hospital on St. Thomas, the facility was struggling to pay its bills, obtain medication, and refurbish its aging wings before the battering storms. Now, a majority of its floors lie stripped and damaged, wires hang from the ceiling, and mounds of paperwork still sit piled atop dusty, wrecked desks.

Meanwhile, green army tents are being set up outside to house displaced patients, perform operations, and help alleviate the flow of people seeking medical attention.

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“It’s surreal looking,” he said during a break between seeing patients, describing a hospital that’s functioning under extreme circumstances with no plan yet in place to either repair or rebuild the dilapidated structure. The emergency room sees about 20,000 people a year.

Officials estimate it could take up to two years to either repair or completely replace the 35-year-old building.

“The entire hospital drenched in water, the fourth floor dripping onto the third, the third dripping onto the second floor and pharmacy. It’s extensively saturated through and through,” he said, and its sister facility, St. Croix Regional Medical Center, is even worse.

Bacot

Brianna Sacks/BuzzFeed News

“I have two essentially condemned hospitals. Right now I have a hospital that I cannot safely operate in,” the surgeon said.

Massive fans blow hot, stale air inside the ER’s waiting room, which was packed with people on Wednesday afternoon. Doctors have lost two critical floors, its behavioral health floor, which houses mentally-ill patients, and its medical unit.

When they need to operate, they are either sending patients out on emergency and aid flights or performing emergency operations in less-damaged rooms on the first and second-floors, where powerful winds still tore through, tossing equipment, ceiling tiles, and files across its wings.

Tina Comissiong, the acting Chief Executive Officer of the Schneider Regional Medical Center, said that while the situation was a battle, the worn staff is still treating patients, whose issues range from infected cuts and broken shoulders to diabetes and pregnant women — because there’s no other choice.

“It's us or nothing,” Comissiong told BuzzFeed News. She touted the “heroic efforts” of the hospital's facility and staff, who she says have been working nonstop to treat people since Irma first ripped through almost a month ago.

“We prepared for Irma but Maria ruined us,” Comissiong recalled, describing 165-mile winds barrelling into the hospital as staff rushed to pull patients from their beds and get them downstairs.

“Everyone from nurses to cafeteria workers to the security guys. They are working under insane conditions and have their own damaged homes and families in need. My daughter is sick. My home is ruined and we are here because people need us,” Comissiong said.

Army tents awaiting patients

Brianna Sacks/BuzzFeed News

And while they praised the federal government’s response, the medical professionals are still in dire need of help and supplies, like tetanus and insulin.

One doctor is running out of ace bandages, gauze, alcohol prep pads, and shoulder arm slings. Bacot is down to the dregs of his cotton ball and surgical tape stashes. Families are still not getting baby formula and feminine products.

The hospital doesn’t have access to cancer-treating drugs, Comissiong added, and while it can still host operations and deliver babies, which doctors have since the hurricanes, they can only do so at limited capacities.

Then there’s the people — exhausted, overworked doctors, nurses, and facilities workers, who need relief to sleep and care for their own traumatized families and homes, which for many are starting to fill with mold.

The dire conditions of the territories’ two main hospitals is also a major concern for US Virgin Islands Senator Janelle Sarauw.

Comissiong

Brianna Sacks/ BuzzFeed News

“Both hospitals are decimated on St. Croix and here on St. Thomas,” Sarauw said, dismayed at the lack of facilities and available relief. “You only hear about us when the storm hits. Aid should have been here a lot faster.”

Their concerns go beyond the hospital — with weeks-old water still pooling in hundreds of homes, restaurants, and other buildings, they now worry about the spread of disease.

“I'm growing mosquitos in back of my car,” Bacot said, “And you have to imagine that situation is happening to all of us. Everybody. It's on the entire island.”

Rebecca Howe, a 32-year-old photographer, told BuzzFeed News that they are using a bucket of water to flush their toilet and mosquito larvae is now growing in it.

“Mosquitos are a big concern,” Sarauw also said. “They can bring Zika, cholera, dengue fever,” she said. “These are big, crazy bugs that can carry a lot of shit.”

Keshorn Ferrari, 30, spoke of how he was able to get his father evacuated to Miami after Irma hit. But now he remains, stuck, and unable to get the medicine he needs for a transplanted kidney he received a year ago when one of his own failed.

Ferrari's medicine, like much of the islands’ goods, gets flown in from another US Territory — Puerto Rico, which has been utterly devastated by Maria.

Keshorn Ferrari

Brianna Sacks/BuzzFeed News

“Now it's like, ‘Oh my god, what do I do?’” Ferrari said. He's gone seven days without critical medication to help his kidneys function after a recent transplant.

Ferrari, who works at a Westin hotel on the island of St. John, said he can't get the care he needs because there are no available specialists and pharmacies don't have the medication he needs, which he said he’s gone without for seven days now.

“People here have conditions like me, like heart conditions, and they don't have those medications here and we have to rely on Puerto Rico,” Ferrari said, who said he even occasionally travels to Miami for intravenous immunoglobulin infusions because the procedure isn’t available in the US Virgin Islands.

“I'm just working to travel to Miami to get medicine and treatment. You have to go through so much here to get help sometimes,” Ferrari said, who is now being evacuated to Jackson, Mississippi, because his medication did not come in Wednesday afternoon—the last day he could go without taking them.

Apart from the physical needs of a safe place to operate, Bacot told BuzzFeed News of another pressing and invisible need on the island — the mental aspect to the tragedy.

“We have had a shortage of healthcare professionals with the ability to deal with psychological issues,” Bacot said. “We have an epidemic of people who have gone through significant psychological trauma, children to poor and elderly. The storm did not spare any demographic. The psychological scars will remain for a long time and need to be addressed acutely and chronically.”

He also said that he's providing most of his services for free — which will raise an issue in the future for him.

“Those treatments are expensive,” he said, “and I'm worried about paying my staff of 60 people.”

Talal Ansari contributed to this report from New York.

Source: https://www.buzzfeed.com/usnews.xml

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