On a rainy morning in downtown St. Thomas, Pfc. Emilia Angel checks her patient's blood pressure from inside an RV operating as a mobile health clinic. She and other medical personnel from the Pennsylvania Army National Guard are treating residents with little or no access to health care.
"[It's] things we take for granted," Angel, a combat medic specialist with the 108th Area Support Medical Company, said. “People just appreciate us coming here. Even if we're just checking their blood pressure."
When Hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through the U.S. Virgin Islands in September, they destroyed the territory’s two main hospitals. The Category 5 storms battered the roofs, and wind damage brought down the walls.
Both hospitals are waiting for modular units to be installed in the next few months. Until then, patients in need of major surgeries are being referred off island and staff has been laid off.
The situation is improving, but neither hospital is operating at full capacity, according to U.S. Virgin Islands Health Commissioner Michelle Davis.
"We are still assessing the damage," Davis said.
The damage to the hospitals forced the government to evacuate more than 400 patients, including those receiving dialysis treatment. The majority are receiving care in Atlanta, but a small number were sent to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma and were too ill to be moved again when Maria struck the island.
More than two months after the storms, a majority of residents still lack electricity, compounding health problems for those managing routine health issues at home.
Chronic conditions like diabetes -- which requires insulin medication to be refrigerated -- have become difficult to manage.
Sixty-one year old Claudia Titre went to the mobile health clinic to have her blood sugar levels checked. She has diabetes and has been storing her insulin in bags of ice since September.
“It’ll be alright," she said, exasperated.
The elderly are especially vulnerable to the power outages. No electricity has meant climbing up flights of stairs when elevators aren't functioning and living with no air conditioning in the tropical heat.
A lack of clean drinking water is also a concern, 1st Lt. James Cawley, a physician assistant with the 108th Area Support Medical Company, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, said.
"[Patients] have severe wounds, and they're not able to get them properly cleaned. They're walking in dirty water,” he said.
Davis said two months after the hurricanes, the health care system in the U.S. Virgin Islands is improving but is far from optimal.
The territory of more than 100,000 American citizens, she stressed, still needs assistance.
"Just because there’s a small population, it should not minimize the caring and the thought that the territory gets or deserves."
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