Gabriel Vazquez-Lopez

University of Puerto Rico Nurse Anesthesia Program

When tropical storm winds started to hit our island last September, the residents of Puerto Rico never imagine the monster that was slowly making its way to us. After all, we live in the Caribbean, we are used to this, or so we thought. The night of September 19th, 2017 was like no other. Hurricane María, a nearly Category-5 tropical cyclone, hit our beautiful island with such force it left surreal devastation. Hundreds of thousands lost everything, there was no communication of any sort, no water, the already crippled power infrastructure was all on the ground, food was scarce, long lines for $5 worth of gasoline, families separated by destruction, and those in the mainland United States emotionally devastated for not being able to reach their loved ones.

There are dozens of Student Registered Nurse Anesthetists studying at the three accredited programs on the island. Many of us were barely starting our program when the ordeal happened. If there is something all CRNAs know for sure, it is how challenging those first months of anesthesia school can be. Add to that, the fact of trying to study surrounded by devastation and human pain. In the aftermath of Hurricane María, we did not resume school for about a month. Many of us, whose families and properties are in areas out of the capital could not even get to metropolitan San Juan as streets were obstructed or destroyed. READ MORE

Many of us went from studying the anesthesia machine and the foundations of airway management to be in the dark, making lines to buy a few bottles of waters, and trying to console one another. Our usual academic activities were substituted by a day-to-day survival effort. It was a new reality. A new way to operate.

Once my peers and I were able to go back to the University of Puerto Rico, Medical Sciences Campus, we took our school as a shelter. We did not sleep there but spent most of our days in our studying room. It was a safe place. It was a place of comfort. It was place separated from the desolation that was happening out of campus. Being physically there was the only way to directly communicate with professors and try to do our work. Getting through the semester seemed like mission impossible. Since our campus is part of Puerto Rico’s biggest medical center with about five hospitals in the same area, we took advantage of the frail electricity restored but, many times, we were left in the dark as power continuously went out. Every time that happened, we were evacuated from campus and classes were cancelled. Frustration is too small a word to describe our feelings at the moment. I remember clearly one day when we refused to leave campus and told one of our professors we were there to learn and were going to have class even if it meant to do so under a tree. Our professors were doing everything to make it all work while dealing with their own personal struggles. At the school, we were given snacks and bottles of water to bring back home. We knew we have to get academic work done at school because there was no time for it once we get home. Going back home in the late afternoon hours meant time to help our families to get food, get water, find a place to shower, try to get candles and other important items to get through the dark nights. It was the same exhausting routine day after day.

Many SRNAs usually live on limited budgets during school years. Hurricane María hit us not only physically and emotionally, but also financially. At the moment, our money was not just for school and living related expenses. It also had to be redirected toward getting basic survival items that, in many places, were overpriced. It is unbelievable to go back and remember the struggle to find and being able to buy a bag of ice! Our minds were all over the place. We were trying to do well in a rigorous graduate program while adapting to the disaster that was unfolding. The hurricane was not the tragedy. The tragedy was what it left behind.
Not everything has been bad, however. Since the moment of the disaster, there have been multiple uplifting moments. We have gotten to experience precious moments of human compassion and empathy. Help has come from many, mostly, ordinary citizens. The many thoughts and prayers that have been sent our way have also been felt. The AANA Foundation provided us financial assistance through their Emergency Grant. Dr. Lena Gould, CRNA, FAAN was always on our side to help us during the process. The Illinois State Association of Nurse Anesthetists made a fund raiser and made a donation to SRNAs in our program. Those are some of the many acts of kindness during the past months.

Puerto Rico is still in a recovery process. We cannot forget that, up to this day, there are still people without power. One thing is certain: this beautiful island is blessed in so many aspects. The spirit of my people is so strong not even hurricane winds make it go down. My colleagues in the nurse anesthesia program are some of the strongest people I have ever known. We are here; we continue stronger than ever. We still look back and reflect on the tragedy, but we also look forward with great optimism. Not a day goes by without being thankful for what we have. We will become CRNAs and will serve our communities with commitment, empathy, and passion.

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