The last of the 142 Soldiers from the 62nd Medical Brigade, out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, who were deployed to Puerto Rico since Oct. 11, returned home Nov. 22. The JBLM Soldiers were sent to Puerto Rico to coordinate and provide medical care to the island commonwealth devastated from Hurricane Maria in September.
Hurricane Maria reached landfall over Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane in the early hours of Sept. 20. The Lesser Antilles, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, already faced the full strength of Maria as a Category 5 hurricane earlier.
According to Rafael Rodríguez-Mercado, the secretary of health for the government of Puerto Rico, only 17 of 68 hospitals still had direct communication with the Department of Health of Puerto Rico due to the lack of electricity across the island. Survivors on the U.S. Virgin Islands had hospitals that could only provide a minimal level of care after the storm.
Patients were dying in hospitals due to the lack of electricity and services. This amplified the public’s concern for Puerto Rico and the federal government’s response.
A multitude of U.S. military from all branches mobilized to the island. A wide range of medical units mobilized to work side-by-side with the Department of Health and Human Services teams and FEMA in support of the Puerto Rico Department of Health.
The loss of medical services lead to more deaths and demonstrated the need for military response. Task Force Medical formed out of that response.
JBLM’s 62nd Med. Bde., arrived in San Juan Oct. 11 to coordinate the military medical treatment facilities that sprang up on the island, including a fleet of ambulances and life-saving surgical and intensive care units.
By that time, many of the units were already operating on the ground, especially the Army Reserve and Army National Guard units from Puerto Rico. In total, the task force coordinated 11 units in more than a dozen different locations across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, United States Navy Ship Comfort docked in San Juan Oct. 3, providing the full capability of a hospital with hundreds of Sailors.
The Humacao Arena, normally a stadium for local sports, became the home of the 14th Combat Support Hospital. Their mission was to relieve the pressure on local hospitals while power and water returned.
Storm survivors came to the arena from all over the southeastern region of the island where Maria began her devastation. Patients at nearby Ryder Memorial Hospital had to be evacuated and brought to the arena after a generator failed.
Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, a professional emergency medical response force under the Department of Health and Human Services, came to assist the 14th CSH and other units. The overwhelming need for primary care requests from the people of Puerto Rico who had no doctor to visit required disaster medical teams’ intervention.
In the northwest coastal area of Aguadilla, the government closed the area’s El Buen Samaritano hospital due to the storm. The Army Reserve’s 335th Area Support Medical Company, of Puerto Rico, established a medical facility there.
At Aguadilla the 335th ASM Co. and 331st Expeditionary Medical Support Team combined to treat more than 5,000 patients.
“It was a huge help to the (335th ASM Co.),” said Col. Teresa Duquette-Frame of the 62nd Med. Bde. “One of their physicians was so exhausted he ended up being hospitalized with pneumonia. That’s how busy they were. They were seeing over 300 (patients) a day.”
Over time, the military medical units of the task force will return to their home station but FEMA and the disaster medical teams will remain. The eventual departure of the USNS Comfort will signal the ability of civilian medical care to take care of most situations.
Currently, all 68 hospitals have returned to normal operations, according to Rodríguez-Mercado.
“We were able to help assist and decompress those facilities as they recovered and give people time to take care of their own homes as we provided treatment ... and hopefully some relief,” said Maj. Christopher Wingate, the operations officer for the 62nd Med. Bde.
Many of the units involved in Task Force Medical were designed for a different kind of mission. They train to provide emergency medical care in the event of a terrorist attack, and they rarely provide medical care in one place for too long, said Duquette-Frame.
Rodríguez-Mercado said the teamwork between Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense and the Department of Health prevented the deterioration of a health care system strained by Hurricanes Maria and Irma. Nearly 12,000 patients, many of them severe, were treated in a four-week period throughout Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by Task Force Medical units.
“I think this was the most significant effort ever made in the island where the federal component and the state component worked together or one purpose — the health of the people of Puerto Rico,” Rodríguez-Mercado said.