Today, after the last few days of travelling for hours to reach the more isolated parts of Puerto Rico, we drove only twenty minutes from our hotel to pull up under a bridge in Rio Piedras. Our group went to the same location last week with Intercambios Puerto Rico, an organization that provides mental health, social work, and needle exchange services to the homeless population in the area. You can read Nishone’s Day 4 blog post for more background about the organization and the group’s first experience there, and this week we were back to do the same thing, but armed with more supplies: basic medical check-ups, handing out toiletries, and connecting people with social services.
I jumped out of the car ready for an entirely different experience than what we had done earlier in the week making house calls and working in clinics. I was ready for patients who were less cared-for and with worse medical conditions than patients the previous days. I was nervous and unsure about how much I could actually help these people in what seemed like such a foreign place, but as soon as I started talking with the men and women who lived under the bridge or slowly came out of the surrounding dilapidated houses, I felt like I was back home 10 minutes from Grady working with Atlanta's homeless population.
What I always found on the streets in Atlanta was that people do indeed need healthcare, but they mostly wanted somebody to care and recognize them as individual people with previous lives, families, and a story. My mind quickly shifted from worrying about how to treat patients under a bridge with limited supplies to hearing their stories (as best I could without actually speaking Spanish), listening to their everyday struggles, and helping with whatever they needed, whether that was actual medical care or making sure they got a pair of socks.
One man I met was born in New York and came down to Puerto Rico with his parents when he was a kid. Since then, both of his parents died and he fell into poverty. He broke down in tears telling me how much he wanted to go back to New York to be with his extended family and see his new niece and nephew. Even though he had a myriad of medical problems that I tried to focus on, he couldn’t articulate them to us well. I was hardly able to do anything for him medically, but I was able to sit and listen to him talk about his family and support him while he was speaking with the social worker. In that moment, I had to realize that his family was his number one priority, not his health or food security or money. Medicine is such an integral part of my everyday life that it can be hard to realize that it is not necessarily a priority for a lot of people.