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USF Health Reaches Out To Puerto Rico

Carol Guzy for NPR
The hospital in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, evacuated its coronary floor last week and moved those patients into cooled tents erected by an American disaster medical team.

A pair of University of South Florida physicians left over the weekend for Puerto Rico with some much-needed medical supplies. But it's just the beginning of USF's outreach to the island.

General internal medicine physician Asa Oxner and a colleague plan to spend a week delivering supplies and providing care at a number of hospitals and other medical facilities damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

"They're specifically talking about supplies for chronic illnesses, like diabetes, high blood pressure, as well as acute things, like dehydration," Oxner said.

In addition to supplies, the pair will begin mapping out plans for as many as ten other USF physicians to visit Puerto Rico over the next few weeks and months.

The visits need to be spread out, as living space for the doctors in Puerto Rico is limited, and they have to bring their own food and other provisions with them as well.

Oxner, who's previously worked in an Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone, says this kind of outreach is part of USF Health's mission.

"The truth is our community does extend to Puerto Rico, we have so many faculty members, students and patients who are Puerto Rican," Oxner said. "It's usually a short flight to get over there and so people are coming to Florida very frequently."

USF Health is matching monetary donationsfrom the public to help get the doctors and supplies to Puerto Rico.

University officials have also invited 240 medical students from Ponce Health Sciences University to complete their current semester in Tampa. Oxner said the concern is the students would fall behind on their studies since their school has been shut down because of storm damage. Delays in their education might cause a long-term shortage of doctors in Puerto Rico.

Exact details are still being worked out, but it's believed the students would be housed on the Tampa campus and use classroom and lab space on nights and weekends when USF students aren't using them. USF Health educators would also assist Ponce faculty and staff who would accompany the students.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.