Howard Student, Dallas Native Experiences Healthcare in Puerto Rico, firsthand, during Alternative Spring Break

Howard University student Dara Freeman (right), 20, speaks on the phone with her mother to let her know that she feels better after receiving a round of medication for a migraine headache at Manatí Medical Center on the island of Puerto Rico. Her best friend and fellow student, Chinara Ume, 20, waits with her. The students traveled to Puerto Rico to participate in Howard University’s Alternative Spring Break program. (Tatyana Hopkins/NNPA)

By Tatyana Hopkins, NNPA Newswire Special Correspondent

MANATI, Puerto Rico—Howard University student Dara Freeman, was in pain, crazy pain, the kind that most people will never experience. Freeman, 20, had been hit with a migraine headache.

The pain is excruciating, so severe that it has caused high-profile athletes, like basketball stars Dwyane Wade, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Scottie Pippen—to miss championship games, because they simply couldn’t play through the torment.

According to the Migraine Research Foundation (MRF), a nonprofit group that raises money to support research and improve treatments for migraines, “Every 10 seconds, someone in the U.S. goes to the emergency room complaining of head pain and approximately 1.2 million visits are for acute migraine attacks. Healthcare and lost productivity costs associated with migraines are estimated to be as high as $36 billion annually in the U.S.”

The group’s website also noted that three times as many women as men suffer from migraines in adulthood.

Freeman tried to describe the pain between breaths.

“It feels like someone is trapped in my head and is trying to kick their way out,” she said.

Now, the Dallas native, who had accompanied dozens of Howard students to Puerto Rico to help the residents of the hurricane-stricken island, was in desperate need herself.

Freeman needed a hospital, so a friend and Howard University faculty adviser Silvia Martinez drove 20 minutes east from the Assemblies of God Campsite in Arecibo, where the students are staying, to Manatí.

The first Manatí hospital that the group took Freeman to looked closed, even though it wasn’t. In the confusion, the students left and drove to another hospital; that hospital appeared closed, too.

Freeman, a junior, began to worry that she would not receive treatment.

The group ended up at the Manatí Medical Center, where Freeman said that she received the same level of care that she would have received in a hospital emergency room in her hometown.

Nurses quickly got her in and out of triage. Physicians and technicians placed an intravenous needle into her arm, conducted blood tests, and gave her a shot for the pain. They gave also her medication for allergies that can cause the headaches.

She arrived at the hospital at 9 p.m., received treatment and slept until about 7 a.m. the next morning. She woke up drowsy and confused.

“When I woke up, I was a little startled and I almost punched a nurse,” Freeman said. “I thought they were trying to steal me, but then I realized I was okay.”

Freeman was fortunate that she hadn’t needed help in the weeks right after Hurricane Maria hit the island last September. The brunt force of the near Category 4 storm hit Manatí, a town of 43,000 residents on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. After viewing the destruction of his city, the town’s mayor, José Sánchez, called the area a “no man’s land.” He pleaded with the Puerto Rican government for aid more than a week after the storm.

For weeks, the town went without power and water. Residents used rainwater collected in a local swimming pool and hospitals were left without resources to treat patients.

“We did not have power and we were on generators for a while, until about November or December,” said a switchboard operator from the hospital just a few blocks from where Freeman was treated. She declined to give her name. “Now, we [have power], and there are changes that have been made, but we’re still open.”

Hospitals in other parts of the island ran low on medications. Treatment centers for chronically ill patients decreased, and many of the island’s medical professionals did not report to work.

Conditions have certainly improved, residents said.

“This is one of the best hospitals,” Carlos Montallzo, 41, said as he waited near the Manatí Medical Center emergency room. Montallzo was there to get his 17-year-old son treatment for a severe nosebleed.

According to information released by the government, all of Puerto Rico’s 67 hospitals are operating. Meanwhile federal recovery efforts have reached at least 38,000 people who were without needed healthcare and got them to appropriate healthcare facilities.

Ruth Barosy, 39, is a visiting family medical resident from New York City working at the Mayagüez Medical Center, a hospital on the west coast of the island, about two hours from San Juan, the island’s capital.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, Barosy said that the hospital transferred patients to other facilities and then shutdown due to lack of power and extensive damage to its roof. It re-opened weeks later, but limped along sparingly on generators and experienced several power failures.

“We lost a few patients, but compared to other places, we didn’t get it that bad,” Barosy said. “San Juan got [hit] the hardest. Now repairs are complete and we are back.”

Other areas still need help, she said.

“San Juan still experiences power failures, and I wouldn’t be surprised, if there were still communities without access to healthcare,” she said.

Barosy said her hospital staff reached out to rural communities, who struggled with health access, even before the storm, and were even more desperate afterwards.

“In the metro area, things are running like normal,” she said. “Then, there are places that don’t have anything.”

Natali Rivera, 29, a missionary with the outreach group Assemblies of God, said that, even now, sick people in rural areas on the island are still in great need of medical attention. She said that her church, Connected Life, has run health clinics in many of the island’s rural communities.

“It’s hard to get food and supplies to people in the mountains, because it’s hard to use the roads, but they are still in need,” Rivera said.

Meanwhile, Freeman spent Sunday back in the camp in Arecibo recovering, while other students attended church in San Juan. She said she wanted to be ready for Monday, when students begin their work with hospitals and schools.

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