On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma produced 100 mile-per-hour winds and cut off power to two-thirds of the island of Puerto Rico. Just a couple weeks later, Hurricane Maria made landfall and knocked out power to the entire island.
By the beginning of October, the devastation had reached a new humanitarian crisis that could not be measured by a death count, percent of available potable water or amount of power restored.
But despite the challenges, one physician had the honor of taking part in a once-in-a- lifetime trip along with hundreds of other volunteers to help provide relief for the U.S. territory.
His experience began Oct. 1.
"I remember that Sunday distinctly," recalls Dr. Timothy Laurie, a gastroenterologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.
"I received a call from a contact of mine at United about a partnership between United Airlines and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations that involved the recruitment of over 300 volunteers of labor and health care to provide relief for Puerto Rico. They needed a physician to help with their relief effort and asked if I would join."
Just 72 hours later, a flight with 35,000 tons of supplies, hundreds of dedicated volunteers and one physician departed for Puerto Rico. Dr. Laurie came onboard with a suitcase filled with donated medications provided by the pharmacy at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital.
"I was humbled to join a new team of inspired caregivers, all motivated by the passion, love, and respect for people suffering and in need of support," says Dr. Laurie.
"This was the first of many illustrations highlighting the impact of generosity and the connection to the human spirit."
Over the days that followed, volunteers deployed across San Juan to provide relief and support. They dispersed medical supplies, food, and water and helped remove debris and waste, all without personal gain or compensation.
Dr. Laurie was in Puerto Rico for a week providing medical care and helping educate residents on proper medical care.
"Prior to the hurricane the population in the areas we visited had a high incidence of many chronic conditions like diabetes," he says. "After the hurricane, many individuals with those conditions were short on medical supplies and some had sustained minor injuries. Oftentimes, those wounds got infected and wouldn't heal.
"While I didn't treat a lot of trauma patients, I did see a lot of patients whose prior conditions had worsened due to a variety of factors. Much of my job was providing the supplies necessary to get those conditions under control and provide education about how to keep them that way."
For Dr. Laurie that meant purchasing hand sanitizers and providing the proper hand hygiene education to stop the spread of things like conjunctivitis and scabies.
Still, while Dr. Laurie was there to educate the community and provide relief, he found that, in fact, members of the poorest, most devastated areas actually helped educate him on what generosity really means.
"We would be walking into the most devastated, poorest populations and they would welcome us with open arms," he says. "They would be so happy that we were there and offer to help get us anything we needed. It really made me appreciate being a physician and being part of this amazing effort.
"It truly opened my eyes to the resiliency of these people who had lost everything. They still had smiles on their faces. They were still there for their neighbors. They were still helping each other."