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Photo by Carlotta Mohamed/QNS
State Assemblyman David Weprin (third from right) with members of the Jamaica Hospital Health Disaster Response Team, who were deployed on a disaster relief mission to Puerto Rico.

A team of mental health professionals who were deployed on a disaster relief mission to Puerto Rico received a warm welcome back home with a special reception and award ceremony at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center on Friday. 

On Feb. 2, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the special announcement that a delegation of bilingual mental health professionals were being deployed to Puerto Rico to provide much-needed support to residents recouping from a string of devastating earthquakes. 

The MediSys Health Network volunteered a group of six mental health experts from the Jamaica Hospital Health Disaster Response Team to serve on the mental health relief mission coordinated by the Greater New York Hospital Association (GYNHA).

The team — Frank Lopes (social worker); Denise Osorto (social worker); Alberto Palomino (clinical manager); Martha Edelman (CPEP medical director); Attilio Rizzo (chief social service psychiatry); and Jennifer Santos (psychologist) — returned to New York on Feb. 10. 

Bruce J. Flanz, President & Chief Executive Officer of the MediSys Health Network (l.) receives a citation from State Assemblyman David Weprin. (Photo: Carlotta Mohamed/QNS)

In celebration of their humanitarian work in Puerto Rico, State Assemblyman David Weprin presented each team member with a certificate from the New York State Assembly. 

“What you did going to Puerto Rico to assist — and I know that a number of mental health initiatives from all of the suffering people have gone through and dealing with the issues post earthquake and hurricane — I commend all of you,” said Weprin, who visited the island in November. 

Although the earthquakes — which began on Dec. 28, 2019 and continue to occur — have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, the greatest impact of the catastrophic events is reflected in the mental health of the island’s residents. The devastation has left many people feeling hopeless and fearful. Several have been diagnosed with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“The need for mental health support on the island was overwhelming. We realized that survivors were in great need of our assistance, and this prompted us to respond with urgency to serve on the mental health relief mission,” said Mark Marino, director of Pre-Hospital Care. 

According to Marino, the team was deployed to shelters and camps in Guanica, Guayanilla and Ponce on Feb. 3. Jamaica Hospital’s mental health professionals were integrated into the work of the Puerto Rico Administration of Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services. 

Each day, during their week-long mission, the team separated into two groups to canvass the south-west part of the island. One group led by Edelman, worked at camps in various locations as well as a park used as an informal school for children.  

“There was a nonprofit teachers association and they had 165 kids in that park trying to do classes for kindergarteners through third grade for two hours each morning,” Edelman said. “I saw amazing, strong loving people who are trying to help each other.”

According to Edelman, buildings are either destroyed or undermined to the point where people are unable to live in it.

“Here and there is a building where people can still be in, but in general, those homes were built to withstand hurricanes, not an earthquake. They were on stilts,” Edelman said. “People are also not sleeping. They’re very anxious and are experiencing panic attacks.”

Describing the trip as a “life changing experience and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Edelman said the team members are still adjusting on their return back to New York. 

“It’s a sharp contrast — the kind of work we do in mental health is exposure to a lot of suffering, and so we have a lot of ways in coping with that and this was different,” Edelman said. 

The other group, led by Rizzo, was deployed to different neighborhoods in mountainous areas, where they conducted door-to- door canvassing and provided home visits to those in need. 

According to Rizzo, a database called Go Canvas was created to gather information on 1,200 patients evaluated in Puerto Rico.  

“It was about what they were experiencing and what types of symptoms, specifically to whatever they claimed to what was making them feel that way, which was the tremors,” Rizzo said. “They’re still working on that database and we don’t know the complete results, but when we do, we’ll figure out how to help them down there. We’re hoping we can develop another plan.”

Santos said amid the destruction she observed a resilient community.  

“We saw people who are strong and community-oriented,” Santos said. “Even though we were there to assist them, you could see the resilience and culture that assisted them to move forward and look into the future.” 

Anthony Maffia, vice president of Psychiatry, said, “Jamaica Hospital is proud to have served on this mission and hope that by supporting the victims of the earthquakes, we were able to help them to recover from traumatic events and rebuild their lives.”

 The MediSys Health Network has a long history of providing disaster relief to those in need. Some past relief efforts of the MediSys Health Network include: 

  • Hurricane Andrew – Homestead, Florida, 1992
  • Northern Country Ice Storms – Watertown, NY, 1998
  • World Trade Center Attacks (9/11) – New York, NY, 2001
  • Hurricane Katrina –Louisiana & Mississippi, 2005
  • Hurricane Sandy – Far Rockaway, New York, 2012
  • Hurricane Maria- Puerto Rico, 2017

According to Bruce J. Flanz, president and CEO of the MediSys Health Network, “It has always been our mission to provide relief to those in need. Responding to disasters and exporting our talents where they can be utilized is something that we are proud to do and will continue to offer whenever it is needed.”

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