A plea for hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico

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A true personal story; a plea

We first met Dr. Gonzalez years ago when Carlos Delgado and his friends funded a project so that doctors in the local, community hospital of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico -- home town of Dr. Gonzalez and Delgado -- can offer free tele-consultation services from the Pediatric Department of the Mass General Hospital for poor children attending emergency services in Aguadilla. The service also included educational services to the Aguadilla hospital staff who watched on closed circuit TV didactic activities and procedures performed in vivo in Boston. Delgado provided full financial support for this unique, and first of its kind, in-vivo, on-time tele-consultation and didactic services and help to established the former Blue Jays slugging first baseman as a prominent benefactor and winner of the Roberto Clemente Award.

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By Ernesto Gonzalez-Martinez, M.D.

I was drafted in 1967 to serve the armed forces of the United States as my internship and medical school training at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine was completed. At the time this was the only medical school in Puerto Rico and the enrollment was fifty new students.

Only 35 students graduated; 17 in the graduating class were males. All graduates were inducted in the armed forces except for two who were disqualified for medical reasons.  Ninety percent of all eligible male graduates, physically able, were assigned to serve the American troops in Vietnam.

Some of us pleaded through official channels to be assigned to other stations for different reasons. In my case, my mother had suffered two episodes of pulmonary embolism in one year and was under my personal medical care. 

Moreover, my wife had a one-year old child and was pregnant with our second child. I had also been diagnosed with gall bladder stones while suffering intermittent episodes of severe abdominal pain exacerbated by certain foods.

The application for reassignment was dismissed readily as the only representative of the government of Puerto Rico in congress, the resident commissioner, had no right to vote during deliberations and had no political power to impact decisions.

This situation compared unfairly to the 50 states that have official representation in congress. After receiving the traditional training for physicians in San Antonio, Texas I became a battalion surgeon in Vietnam. That created significant dislocation for my family; my pregnant wife, with my one-year old daughter, moved to New York to live with her parents.

My sick mother returned to my hometown where she received sub-optimal medical care, compared to the care received in San Juan. Afraid to aggravate her frail condition, she was never told that I was going to a war zone until I returned from the one-year tour (1967-68).

My personal history had a positive ending, after all. I survived the war and my obligatory two-year military commitment. I was awarded the bronze medal for meritorious services in Vietnam. My family was reunited and eventually expanded to three children and six grandchildren.  My mother passed away at 90 years of age and is now in heaven proudly blessing our success.

As a dermatologist, I have attained the academic level of professor at Harvard Medical School and more importantly, served thousands of loyal patients during a 45-year career in Puerto Rico and at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Each day this interaction with patients represents a socio-medical blissful moment that is fulfilling and rewarding; the genesis of this is the core values imparted by my mother.

The story of my classmates has been fraught with certain tragic events as some died in the war zone, while others committed suicide or became disabled as a consequence of post-traumatic syndrome, a term that euphemistically and appropriately was coined after the Vietnam war.

The biggest casualty, however,  was the people of Puerto Rico deprived of 17 new physicians trained in our small island to provide the medical services to a population of 3.5 milllion people.

The high percentage of recently trained physicians assigned to a war zone was disproportionate to the lower percentage of medical students in medical schools of states with representation in congress, many assigned to stations in non-war zone areas such as Europe, Japan and Korea.

This phenomenon was repeated every year during the duration of the Vietnam conflict (1962-1975). It is evident that the population of the island was deprived of medical services that could have been provided by well-trained, culturally sensitive, home-grown physicians.

There is no recrimination intended in this chronicle describing the injustices of the past. It is a plea, however, to the citizens of this great nation that the American citizens living in Puerto Rico need the help of all American citizens living outside of the island.

The catastrophic events endured by our brothers and sisters during the Maria hurricane  require the civic and moral commitment to marshal the tremendous resources of federal government and private citizens to help the American citizens now struggling in this, once beautiful, island. In solidarity let us help the victims of my homeland; all of them American citizens.

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If you would like to help out your fellow man, one place to donate to the fund for Puerto Rico is based at Boston Foundation. Vanessa Calderon, is the CEO of Inquilinos Boricuas en Accion, a Puerto Rican organization in Boston with a tremendous reputation to help the needy in Boston who chairs the funding campaign that addresses the request:
 
“As Ernesto mentioned, I’m the co-chair of the Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico Fund housed at The Boston Foundation. The Fund has raised $1.8M in just two weeks and it’s committed to support NGOs on the ground that are working on relief and recovery efforts. One third of the funds will be allocated to assist with relocation of PR families to MA. We have already granted $100,000 to seven NGOs in PR and will do another round of funding within the next two weeks. If you’re so inclined, the MUPR fund would welcome the monetary contributions that you have collected to continue this work.  The Boston Foundation page with more info: 
 
Calderon co-chairs an organization established to create the relief efforts and established a mechanism to distribute funds to different reputable charity organizations in PR to ensure that the money is used appropriately. 

The Red Cross is also an international organization that is involved in the relief, as well.