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Story highlights

A network of doctors scrambles to deliver aid to counterparts in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico

By mid-October, they estimate, they had delivered 40 tons of supplies

After Hurricane Harvey flooded her city of Houston in August, Jennifer McQuade planned to donate socks.

Instead, surprised by the lack of medical care at a nearby shelter, McQuade, an oncologist, became the unofficial leader of a group of physicians and mothers providing emergency aid at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

She triaged patients, solicited donations and recruited more doctors to join.

Their efforts were so successful that McQuade and the other volunteers still had 2,500 pounds of medical supplies when federal authorities took over the Houston shelter.

So, when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, leaving hospitals without power and short of supplies and drugs, the challenge was finding a plane to deliver the precious cargo to the island.

“Asking for planes, it’s a crazy ask,” said Ashley Saucier, a pediatric emergency physician in Baton Rouge, La., who was working with McQuade on the effort in Houston. But that didn’t stop her.

Across the United States mainland, an agile, jury-rigged network of doctors has scrambled to deliver aid to their counterparts in Puerto Rico. They draw on a sense of solidarity in the medical community, connections formed through the hurricanes in Houston and Florida – and the use of private jets belonging to corporations, sports teams and individual donors.

By mid-October, doctors in the states estimate, they delivered 40 tons of supplies.

Saucier, working through a Facebook introduction, got in touch with the Cajun Airlift, a loosely organized group of Louisiana pilots who had volunteered their planes for Texas flood victims. They moved some of the supplies.

Rick Shadyac, the CEO of St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., put Saucier in touch with FedEx, which is also headquartered in Memphis, to fly more supplies to Puerto Rico.

And through another doctor, McQuade was introduced to Hilda and Greg Curran, a couple who have family in Puerto Rico and a jet they planned to use.

Five days after Maria made landfall, the Currans delivered 1,000 pounds of medical supplies – additional donations supplied by the Texas Children’s Hospital or purchased through funds raised by Saucier – to the University of Puerto Rico Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Juan.

Many of the physicians organizing the donation drive have family in Puerto Rico, while others – including Saucier and McQuade – had no previous connections to the U.S. territory.

Dalian Caraballo, a family physician in Miami, was organizing a separate donation campaign and Facebook page for Puerto Rican doctors when one contact introduced her to the volunteers in Texas and Louisiana. Since she lives in a city that is a convenient pit stop for pilots to fuel up, Caraballo has taken charge of collecting supplies and loading them onto jets before they travel to Puerto Rico.

The planes typically fit 1,000 pounds at most, so only supplies that a doctor in Puerto Rico specifically requested will go onboard. Every box is weighed, labeled and accompanied by a “manifesto,” or instructions of who it goes to next. “Even if it [the shipment] is small, you know it’s getting to the right doctors,” Caraballo said.

Doctors help for personal reasons and as a result of their specialties. Amarilis Sanchez-Valle, a physician in Tampa, studies metabolic genetic conditions that require a specialized formula for infants to avoid brain damage and other health effects.

Initially, her concern was for her family. “I have a sister in Puerto Rico with multiple sclerosis [who] has only two doses left of her medicine,” she wrote in emails to the American Red Cross and the National MS Society on Sept. 25, five days after Maria made landfall. “Is there a way to get medicine to Puerto Rico in the next few days?”

Representatives from both groups apologized, saying they couldn’t help because all the official channels for delivery had been disrupted.

“The problem was, how to get it there? The airport was closed. FedEx was closed,” Sanchez-Valle said.

A friend put her in touch with a person who works for American Airlines, who put the medication in the cargo hold of a relief flight. Sanchez-Valle said her sister is “lucky she’s got me. But what about all the other patients out there? What about my [infant] patient population?”

Sanchez-Valle contacted former colleagues in Puerto Rico and the formula suppliers she works with. Several companies agreed to donate a few hundred pounds of formula.

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The formula reached the island thanks to Elimarys Perez-Colon and Asa Oxner, two internal medicine specialists in Tampa. The women took a commercial flight to San Juan in October, each carrying five suitcases with 800 pounds of supplies, everything from syringes to water filters to donations they received from manufacturers and doctors like Sanchez-Valle.

San Juan and other coastal towns seemed to be receiving adequate help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the military, the women said.

But as they traveled to inland towns like Villalba, where they delivered supplies, they found incredible needs.

The hospitals and clinics were running on diesel generators. Asthma medication was in short supply, Perez-Colon noted. People in small towns were drinking untreated water, a major risk for infection.

“The help is not getting to the small towns. It’s not getting to the middle of the island,” Perez-Colon said.