Durham County

Duke pathologist returns to his native Puerto Rico to help ease the pain

Duke University pathologist Edgardo Parrilla Castellar, wearing ballcap, is pictured with his medical team during their hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
Duke University pathologist Edgardo Parrilla Castellar, wearing ballcap, is pictured with his medical team during their hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of Edgardo Parrilla Castellar

Three days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, leaving the U.S. territory in shambles, Duke pathologist Edgardo Parrilla Castellar finally made his way onto the island – and that alone was no small feat.

He was determined to get there and help, whatever it took.

A native of Puerto Rico, Parrilla Castellar figured he had skills and knowledge that would be of use, even if his medical specialty was unusual: “I push slides for a living, not patients, but I felt confident that I could help many with my medical background. At the very least, I could take vital signs.”

Parrilla Castellar spearheaded a small group of doctors, nurses and allied health staff – most Puerto Ricans – who similarly wanted to offer their assistance. But at the airport in Orlando, his flight to the island was repeatedly canceled, catching the attention of the local media who highlighted the frustration of this group of medics on the evening news.

Finally, Spirit Airlines made room available on a flight into San Juan.

What Parrilla Castellar and his group saw when they landed was heartbreaking.

“We all cried at some point,” he said. “I had lived through hurricanes – Hugo, Georges – but I had never seen anything as bad as this.”

Amid the chaos, he and his fellow good Samaritans gained the trust of the mayor of San Juan and became an independent medical unit under the name of First Medical Relief for Puerto Rico. They quickly went to work.

“The mayor sent us to the places with the highest need, and we ended up treating so many people, most of them elderly,” he said. “They had no food or water, they were diabetics, there was no way to get them to hospitals, and medical conditions were only getting worse.”

We all cried at some point ... I had never seen anything as bad as this.

Edgardo Parrilla Castellar

Before he left the U.S., he said, he had gone to Costco and bought a huge stash of over-the-counter drugs and medical supplies – pain relievers, antiseptic swabs, bandages – and quickly ran through it, donating what remained to the local hospitals.

“What surprised me was that I was there nine days, and not once did I see a military convoy helping people, no one from the federal government,” Parrilla Castellar said. “We were our own unit, and we responded as best we could. It’s incredible how much we did, but also how much is needed.”

Parilla Castellar said the lack of drinking water, along with the annihilation of sewage-treatment systems, is especially troubling because it has created an impending crisis from waterborne infections.

While he said he does not have concrete plans to return, he is hoping to be an advocate for his island to get the word out about the need for assistance and materials.

“It really is a humanitarian crisis,” he said. “The devastation is just horrible and there are tremendous needs.”

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