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Archives Nurses go to Puerto Rico to provide care and prayer

Oct. 17, 2018

By Deacon Kevin Mastellon
Contributing Writer

Watertown – Joyce Wilder and Karen Axenfeld are friends. They are both Registered Nurses. Joyce is a CertifiedNurses Nurse Midwife who practices her profession at Carthage Area Hospital. Karen is a Registered Nurse at Samaritan Medical Center. They were out to dinner one night, catching up on things, when Karen received a text message.

It was a message that would alter whatever plans they thought they had for September 2018. Joyce Wilder called it “Divine intervention.”

The text was from Dr. Sylvia Reimer, a retired physician in Watertown. She and her physician husband Marvin, also retired, would be organizing a team for a medical mission trip to Puerto Rico, specifically to the island of Vieques. The purpose of the mission was to bring basic medical care to the residents of the island still suffering from Hurricane Maria. Would she, Karen, like to go? Karen said “yes” and Joyce, without as much as a second thought said, “tell Sylvia to count me in too.”

And so their journey was set; “something I have always wanted to do,” Wilder said.

Vieques lies 7 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico and is considered one of the territory’s municipalities. A travel brochure describes it this way:

Isla de Vieques is one of the last destinations that truly remains like the Caribbean of the past; quiet, lush, uncrowded, with unmatched natural beauty. As you explore the island, you’ll pass elegant Paso Fino horses roaming free. In Vieques there are no traffic lights, driving in Vieques is a pleasurable experience, narrow roads lead to breathtaking scenic spots, charming colorful towns, and beaches naturally landscaped free of development. Be warned, once you step foot on the beaches of Vieques, you’ll be spoiled for life.

Hurricane Maria changed much of that in September 2017. The wild horses still roam free in the streets and countryside but the rest of the idyllic scene is still in recovery.

“The people there are recovering; they are slowly rebuilding their homes and their beautiful beaches are once again being used by tourists,” the nurses wrote for their sponsor agency, the Upper New York Conference of the United Methodist Church. Their article appears in an on-line newsletter.

Joyce Wilder is a Commissioned Lay Minister and active parishioner of St. Patrick’s Church in Watertown. Karen Axenfeld is from Adams Center and is an active parishioner of St. Cecilia’s and Queen of Heaven parishes in Adams and Henderson respectively.

The rebuilding of Vieques is taking place but the people have a long way to go. “Diabetes and hypertension are prevalent among the people. Some of them have had the ability to get proper medications, but they do not understand the seriousness of their disease or the importance of compliance with their medications, diet and activity” the nurses wrote.

The team saw 87 patients during the week they were on Vieques in a clinic. There are no medical records, no histories for doctors to refer to. All were destroyed in Maria. So the team started collecting simple medical information about the patients they saw and established the beginning of a medical record for each patient.

“The home visits were what moved our hearts the most. Some of them knew we were coming, so they took the time to tidy their home and put on nice clothing. It was reassuring to see that many of them were being well taken care of by family members and a home health aide who volunteers her time to care for 104 patients.”

“There were a few individuals that needed so much more than what we could provide in a week. They were the ones we all prayed for at our evening devotions, as well as privately.”

The death toll from Maria in Puerto Rico alone is estimated to have been just short of three thousand. The economic impact is thought to be in the hundred billion dollar range.

The team Dr. Reimer organized numbered twelve. In addition to the four from the Upstate New York Conference, eight came from the Oneonta area. On Viequez, the mission team was housed and staffed a medical clinic at the United Methodist Church in Esperanza. Some members of the team also had the opportunity to work on home reconstruction alongside a team from the Midwest.

“Many of the residents suffer from the hurricane experience. They have post traumatic stress,” Wilder said. “The diabetes and hypertension are epidemic,” she said. “The major problem is a lack of education about their illnesses. There’s no education about using a glucometer, there’s no education about diet, there’s no education about taking their medication. Hopefully the next team will bring educational material with them; that is what we have recommended.”

It was a unique experience for the group. Joyce Wilder would like to return to Vieques at some point. One team member asked her translator what the people need most. “For you to keep coming, to keep loving on us,” she responded.

One year after Maria, the people of Viesques are still putting the pieces together.

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