Baby steps: Another VA facility reopens in Puerto Rico

gettyimages 856051262 Baby steps: Another VA facility reopens in Puerto Rico

A debris covered street caused when the Arecibo River overflowed is seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.  (RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Kaupanger

Life in Puerto Rico is difficult right now to say the least. Three million American’s are still enduring the longest blackout in US history and more than a third of island residents lack running water. For veterans living close to the town of Arecibo, quality of life was given a bit of a boost when the Arecibo Vet Center reopened its doors this week.

According to the center’s director, the center now has power and water, but is offering limited services. “We have water, power and air conditioning now, but we have no communications,” said Arecibo Vet Center director Elizabeth Gutierrez-Ortiz in VA’s Vantage Point blog.

Gutierrez-Ortiz also pointed out that recovery efforts have been hard for some veterans. “The damage, the military helicopters, sometimes even diesel fumes from generators can cause flashbacks for some.” Arecibo’s Vet Center provides services for veterans living in a 60-mile radius and include counseling, outreach and referral services.

All the Vet Centers in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are now open, except for the Ponce Vet Center. These centers are doing things for clients that they normally wouldn’t do.  “So many people lost everything during the storm,” said social worker Lesley Jimenez-Diaz.  “They need food and water.  Some are homeless.  We have to be flexible in situations like this.”

mmu1 Baby steps: Another VA facility reopens in Puerto Rico

Veterans wait under a canopy for their turn to see a VA provider at the Mobile Medical Unit that is substituting for the Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Community Based Outpatient Clinic.  The chairs they are using are among the few items that could be salvaged from the clinic. (VA photo)


The Vet Center had been working out of a mobile unit onsite of the town’s Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC), which was also damaged by flooding from Hurricane Maria. The mobile medical unit was shipped by barge to the island and is  self-contained. It includes a generator, exam rooms, wheelchair lift and satellite communication.

The unit doesn’t have all the equipment that a fully stocked clinic would have, but it lets VA staff in Arecibo deliver basic services to their local veterans: mostly refilling prescriptions or dealing with colds and small infections.  Counseling services are in place with a social worker, psychiatrist and a mental health nurse on staff.

For the time being, the waiting room is a canvas canopy. There is cold water for patients while they are waiting in the Caribbean heat.  Triage happens under another canopy. Every night the mobile medical unit is taken back to San Juan, about an hour’s drive in good conditions, for security reasons. The long term plan for the CBOC will be a hospital tent system that can remain open 24/7.

Connect: @JonathanVets1 |

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