Vanderbilt University Medical Center

News and information for the Vanderbilt University Medical Center community

Toggle navigation
VUMC in the Community

When their native Puerto Rico was devastated by hurricanes, these VUMC resident physicians stepped up

“We are humbled by the heartfelt love we received from the entire Vanderbilt community"

by February 6, 2018

VUMC resident physicians Jean Pierre Betancourt, left, and Luis Cesar Suarez heard firsthand from family about the damage and continuing struggles in their native Puerto Rico. They led efforts at Vanderbilt to help. Photo by Anne Rayner

Three months after Hurricanes Maria and Irma slammed into the island of Puerto Rico, leaving several million Puerto Ricans still without electricity, VUMC resident physicians and Puerto Rico natives Luis Cesar Suarez, MD, and Jean Pierre Betancourt, MD, spearheaded a Medical Center and University-wide supply drive that raised more than 1,000 pounds of donations for their native island.

The physicians, who have mutual friends and were surprised to run into each other after coming to Vanderbilt for their residencies, said the reports they were receiving from home convinced them they needed to do something to help.

“We heard reports about what happened after the hurricanes — people losing homes, people leaving the island because they didn’t have anything, people still being sheltered because they didn’t have electricity — we got together and decided to help those in need.”

“We have a saying in Puerto Rico, that we have to each give our own little grain of rice, whatever we can to help,” said Betancourt, from San Juan, the U.S. territory’s capital and largest city. “I had family members without electricity since Irma hit [in early September]. They had just gotten electricity back when I went home for Christmas. But there are still lines at supermarkets and there isn’t consistent access to food and clean water and diesel fuel to run generators,” he said.

“We heard reports about what happened after the hurricanes — people losing homes, people leaving the island because they didn’t have anything, people still being sheltered because they didn’t have electricity — we got together and decided to help those in need,” said Suarez, adding that his grandmother still doesn’t have electricity and lost part of her roof as well. Suarez is from the town of Cayey, about 40 miles south of San Juan.

Suarez and Betancourt decided to collect goods instead of money so they would know exactly what items would be donated. Getting the items to Puerto Rico, however, ended up being a little more difficult than they had hoped. They had to hire someone to drive the items to Tampa from Nashville and paid for the transportation out of their own pockets.

From Tampa the donations, more than 1,000 pounds packed in 16 large boxes, were taken to Puerto Rico by an organization that travels directly to towns most affected by hurricane and distributes the items there.

The Vanderbilt donations included construction materials, personal and feminine hygiene products, clothing, food, flashlights and batteries, diapers, cleaning products and first aid kits. “We are humbled by the heartfelt love we received from the entire Vanderbilt community,” Betancourt and Suarez said in an email to those who contributed.

The Vanderbilt donations included construction materials, personal and feminine hygiene products, clothing, food, flashlights and batteries, diapers, cleaning products and first aid kits.

On Wednesday, Jan. 31, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) said the agency’s plan to end its distribution of emergency food and water in Puerto Rico and turn that responsibility over to the Puerto Rican government would not take effect that day as previously announced. A FEMA spokesman said the date was mistakenly provided.

Betancourt and Suarez, in the midst of busy training programs — Betancourt in physical medicine and rehabilitation and Suarez in surgical critical care — said the process took longer than they had hoped because they had never done anything like this before. “Residency is busy and we had to figure out how to do this — what materials we would collect, how we would package the materials and how we could actually get them to the island,” he said.

Betancourt was responsible for the communications within the Medical Center and outlying offices with the help of Don Brady, MD, professor of Medicine and associate dean for Graduate Medical Education, and Suarez was responsible for communicating with the University with the help of a professor from Peabody College, Yolanda McDonald, PhD. Isaura Diaz, MD, also contributed by spreading the message within Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, and Audrey Patrick, program manager in the Office of Graduate Medical Education, was invaluable, the residents said. The items were stored at Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital until they could be shipped.

Betancourt said when he was in San Juan in December he took note of the road damage alone. “You could see highway signs that instead of being in front of you were on the other side of the road, facing backward. There are a lot of fiscal and social issues going on back home, some of which have been around for a long time.”

“Both Cesar and I plan to go back home to practice medicine,” Betancourt said. “I still have a lot of years of training left, but no matter where we go, we are still connected to the island. It’s home and we’ll always be there to help.”

Luis Cesar Suarez, Jean Pierre Betancourt, Puerto Rico, hurricane, Continuing Medical Education