While national debate raged regarding the adequacy of the federal government’s response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and its 3.4 million U.S. citizens, a local effort was helping to bring urgently needed medical care to the island.
State Sen. Terrence Murphy contacted Robert Amler, vice president of government affairs for New York Medical College in Valhalla and Michael Reilly, director of the college’s Center of Excellence in Precision Responses to Bioterrorism and Disasters. They quickly assembled a medical team to fly to Puerto Rico with about 1,000 doses of vaccines donated by the Greater New York Hospital Association and other supplies. They named it “Strike Force 40,” after Murphy’s state senate district. An airplane was secured for the trip by Eric Faulkner, general manager of Ross Aviation at Westchester County Airport through an anonymous donor.
Murphy said, “We carried everything we needed on the plane. We were ready to set up virtually as soon as our wheels hit the ground. But we never would have gotten where we needed to go without the assistance of the San Juan Police. Officers from the New York Port Authority were ready to hand out ready-to-eat meals and water.” Additional help came from the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services and Puerto Rico’s governor and lieutenant governor.
According to Amler, “This was not just a crisis; this was a disaster of epic proportions. When people saw that we were there to help, the news spread like ripples in a pond; it went out in all directions. I would like to think we gave more than vaccines – we gave them hope.”
“Our primary mission was to administer a thousand vaccinations for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis,” Reilly said. “We would be encountering people who had COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), high blood pressure and diabetes whose conditions had been heightened by the lack of available medication. We were prepared to provide them with treatment that would provide them with relief.”
Also on the medical team were Ed Larre, Jose Montalvo and Megan Florio. Martha Ruiz-Jimenez volunteered to serve as translator. Jay Reyes of White Plains Lincoln organized a drive in Westchester to collect relief supplies.