Helping Puerto Rico’s Diabetes Patients Find HOPE in Their Communities After Maria
Hurricane Maria was the deadliest storm to hit U.S. soil in over 100 years. Now, two years later, communities still struggle to cope with damaged homes, a crippled health care system and a dearth of medicine, but some are learning to find strength from within – their families, communities, and, most importantly themselves.
“Nobody is going to say to me in the street, ‘Wow, how good of a person you are!’…[but] I know who I am, I know what I’m fighting for, I know what I want, and I know what I can give.”
Modesta Irizarry Ortiz is a 49-year-old mother of three who lives in Loiza, a small community on Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast. She is a member of the community’s health council, which is responsible for helping to educate locals and connect them with the health services they need.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, those needs have only become more urgent — and still haven’t abated.
A combination of factors, including an unstable electrical grid and significant damage to roads, bridges and other core infrastructure has made it difficult for many in Puerto Rico to access the lifesaving medicines and treatment they need since Maria. Even when supplies are available, care is hard to come by. Thousands of doctors have left the island in the last several years, and 50% of the population relies on Medicaid for health care.
The Risks of Facing Diabetes Without Proper Resources
Modesta knows the challenges firsthand: She is a diabetes patient herself. It developed while she was pregnant, but because she was unaware of what she should do, it became type 2 diabetes.
“With my last pregnancy with my daughter, I had gestational diabetes, and unfortunately did not take care of myself adequately. I gained weight and unfortunately, as time went by, I had problems with sugar until I got type 2 diabetes.”
She is just one among 400,000+ diabetes patients in Puerto Rico. Like on the U.S. mainland, diabetes is common here. More than 15% of the island’s adult population lives with the disease. But help isn’t readily available here: The local economy was already suffering before being hit with $90 billion worth of damage and thousands of casualties from one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.
Without the medicines they need every day, people affected by diabetes are at risk of infections, amputation and organ failure.
“Diabetes has no age…it takes any person who has not taken care of his or her condition,” said Modesta of her experiences with local patients.
What Project HOPE Is Doing to Fight Diabetes in Puerto Rico
The physical risks are steep, but for Puerto Ricans, the mental toll is significant as well. Many live with stress and anxiety over what will happen in the future when the next storm strikes — especially those who depend on vital medicines to lead their normal, everyday lives.
Project HOPE was one of the first NGOs on the ground after Hurricane Maria, delivering over $2 million in medical supplies, including 1,500 vials of insulin, to Puerto Rico’s most vulnerable insulin-dependent patients. And, in partnership with the University of Puerto Rico, we’ve created a solar-powered cold chain to protect the temperature-sensitive medicine and vaccine supply in the event of another disaster (which many believe is only a matter of time).
Project HOPE also rolled out its signature “5 Steps to Self-Care” program, which aims to improve self-management among people with diabetes by teaching best practices and healthier habits. The program is being implemented in Puerto Rico at the primary care level through federally qualified health care centers, as well as in communities with the support of community leaders like Modesta, who work to improve the health of their communities by working hand-in-hand with medical personnel.
Modesta organizes patient educational groups that also serve as support groups. These groups learn about diabetes and discuss their condition.
Since Maria, Project HOPE has provided mental health counseling for more than 600 children, and is currently training workers on diabetes self-management education at over 20 different health clinics across the island.
“For me, Project HOPE has really been good in terms of educating…Dora [her program-assigned nutritionist] is accessible, human and empathetic,” Modesta said about her experience in the diabetes patient program.
She also told us that she believes there are cultural obstacles to self-care in Puerto Rico related to gender.
“Sometimes because of our culture, our society, we [women] have been badly mistreated….We need people who learn to love us and value us as we love ourselves.”
Project HOPE’s mission everywhere in the world is to help the population create a healthy future for themselves. We believe that providing education and emotional support to diabetes patients is just as critical to achieving this goal as providing physical supplies and manpower.