October 05, 2017

Union nurses bring skilled care to relief efforts in Puerto Rico

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
aft nurses
Caption: AFT Nurses and Health Professionals members - including NYSUT members Bita Mehrjou and Alicia Schwartz - prepare to board their plane to assist with relief efforts. Photo via AFTVoices.org.

Hurricane-devastated residents of Puerto Rico and Dominica are getting much needed medical help right now from nurses, doctors and other health care professionals from New York who have flown to the islands with medication, supplies and expertise in skilled care.

Their purpose is to bring medicine and meaning to people who have lost homes, businesses, health, infrastructure, power, phone service, schools and hospitals to the forces of Hurricane Maria. In Puerto Rico, only some of the surviving hospitals are connected to the grid; the rest are working off generators. Lack of water and communication has contributed to primitive conditions, which has put ill people at extreme health risks.

A shortage of gasoline and wrecked roads, combined with lack of phone and computer service, has made transportation of patients in need troublesome and life threatening.

Meanwhile, people of the Caribbean island of Dominica are in crisis after the Category 5 hurricane wiped out power, water and crops, and damaged or destroyed the majority of homes. The island has one hospital.

Emergency room nurse Bita Mehrjou, a multilingual world traveler who left for Puerto Rico Wednesday, works at the hospital at New York University Brooklyn as a member of the United Federation of Teachers/Federation of Nurses, a NYSUT affiliate. 

Alicia Schwartz, a visiting nurse and also member of the UFT/Federation of Nurses, also joined the same American Federation of Teachers group of health care professionals, using two weeks of her vacation time to bring health care relief to people in need.

Their assignment is to work out of the San Juan Coliseum in conjunction with other nurses from the AFL-CIO.

Emergency room nurse Shanita Scottsdale from NYU Langone Medical Center in Brooklyn left last week for a two-week journey to provide medical treatment in the tiny island of Dominica, which was wiped out by Hurricane Maria. She is a member of the UFT/Federation of Nurses, which provided her group of 40 health care professionals with backpacks and personal supplies for rescue workers.

Her mission is personal and professional; a quest to provide answers and medical care. Scottsdale’s father lives in Dominica and has not been heard from, said Howard Sandau, an ER trauma nurse with NYU Brooklyn who serves on NYSUT’s Health Care Professionals Council as member of the UFT/Federation of Nurses. She traveled only after doing extensive networking to gather supplies and set a course of action.

“Shanita organized more than 250 health care professionals who responded to her on social media,” Sandau explained. They donated medical supplies and medications. “She met with the prime minister of Dominica to help support her work.”

Mehrjou’s journey of assistance in Puerto Rico is beginning today.

“I became a nurse in my mid-20s with the dream of volunteering abroad in a Spanish-speaking country … that dream is becoming a reality,” Mehrjou told the AFT, which sponsored the contingent that traveled to Puerto Rico yesterday. “I am not afraid to get my hands dirty and do what needs to get done to get our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico back to speed and try to lift their spirits while I am doing so.”

The AFT rescue group includes workers from the Public Employees Federation and UFT who work in emergency rooms and hospitals, including SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and SUNY Stonybrook University Medical Center in Long Island.

They traveled as part of a group of more than 300 skilled workers from AFL-CIO unions, who are all part of the labor humanitarian mission from New York, New Jersey, Oregon and Vermont, providing supplies, vaccinations and equipment.

Sandau works with Mehrjou in the emergency room at NYU/Brooklyn.

“I know her very well,” he said. “She travels all over the world. She speaks Spanish, Persian; she’s multilingual.” Her language skills are an asset, as are her credentials as a board-certified ER nurse. “That gives you extra knowledge in emergency medicine … Working in the ER, you never know what’s going to come through the door. We treat people from around the world. We see all types of injuries.”