V.I. Medical Evacuee, Part 2: ‘We were Refugees’

Ophelia Torres back home on St Thomas, tells her story about becoming a V.I. medical evacuee.
Ophelia Torres back home on St Thomas, tells her story about becoming a V.I. medical evacuee.

Part 2 of 2

Nine weeks after Hurricane Irma damaged portions of Schneider Regional Medical Center and the Gov. Juan Luis Hospital, sick and displaced Virgin Islanders were calling into radio talk shows back home with allegations of mistreatment while abroad.

One caller spoke about a group of dialysis patients, some in wheelchairs, taken from Miami to an Atlanta nursing home.

According to her unconfirmed reports, a group of seven elderly women were so frightened by conditions they found there, they barricaded themselves inside a room and took turns staying awake to watch the door.

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Such accounts are being heard at a time when 781 Virgin Islanders have been taken from home and moved to the U.S. mainland for kidney dialysis, cancer treatments and medical emergencies serious enough to warrant extended hospital stays. Stays that the Roy L. Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas and Juan Luis Hospital on St. Croix cannot accommodate, due to storm damage.

As of Feb. 21, 260 patients remain off island, according to Eric Adams, spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. However, despite repeated requests, authorities have not given a full account of the status of 521 patients transported off island and released from medical care.

The facts are still being sought at a time when V.I. hospitals remain incapacitated and plans for a temporary fix and still in flux.

The following is the second part of an excerpt from an interview given to the Source by retired UVI Nursing Professor Ophelia Torres, a resident of St. Thomas who herself became a dialysis patient before September 2017.

In Part 1 of the interview, Torres describes the day she and two others reported to a dialysis center for treatment but instead were put on a bus, then a plane, and taken to Puerto Rico.

By her own account, this journey began on or around Sept. 8:

Torres: I went upstairs, talked to the people and they gave me a room. I was able to wash up there, go to sleep.

Next morning I came down to the cardiac center. I said, ‘Look here. Being where I come from, give me the name of the place that sent me here because I need to go back there, I need to find the others. OK?

So they gave me the name. I took a cab, and I went there. And when I got there, they’re all running outside and they said, ‘Oh, Miss Torres, we were looking for you.’

And I said, ‘No, you weren’t.’ I said, ‘You were not looking for me because you sent me – I don’t know Puerto Rico – I am new here. You sent me to this place and you never looked over your shoulder. You close at a certain time, so I couldn’t even call you.

‘I have no number, I don’t know anybody, I don’t have your names. So you were not looking for me. You knew where you sent me. You would have found me there if you were looking for me.’

JS: Another question – did they give you breakfast?

Torres: Yes, they give me breakfast. There was a guy there. He said his name was Boudu, he said he was in charge – I don’t know who put him in charge, but he was in charge.

When the others came, I saw some of the people that I knew. Whether you finish or you’re late, you have to wait for the others to finish to catch the bus, to go back. So we went back to the hotel.

I went back with them. He went and spoke to somebody and a person told me, they were going to find a room for me. Lucky for me, they put me in a room with somebody from the Caribbean Dailysis Center who I knew very well. Her name was Karen.

Karen and I was rooming together in the hotel.

And the food – some people say, ‘Oh, they did good for you. But listen, it all depends on the kind of treatment you’re accustomed to. You wouldn’t talk about this or you wouldn’t worry about this.

But the food. They give me this food. No taste, no nothing. it was canned stuff, or boxed stuff.

And I’m saying, ‘No – no, no, no … I could do better than this.”

JS: Now, I know you had just started dialysis. Had your doctor already given you the diet that had to go along with your treatments?

Torres: I knew, I knew.

JS: You knew, but they didn’t know. They didn’t ask?

Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class Brandon Larnard and registered nurse Tara Lawley escort a patient for evacuation from St. Thomas in the wake of Hurricane Irma. (U.S. Navy image by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis/Released)
Naval Aircrewman 2nd Class Brandon Larnard and registered nurse Tara Lawley escort a patient for evacuation from St. Thomas in the wake of Hurricane Irma. (U.S. Navy image by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Levingston Lewis/Released)

Torres: No. And they were canned stuff, with sodium. So I said, ‘Look here. I don’t know what’s going on here but … is this food?’

And then, what bothered me the most is – what’s his name? He’s from St. John. He said to me, ‘Did you see the Puerto Rico newspapers? The governor’s referring to us as refugees. Refugees from the Virgin Islands.’

You know how hurtful that is?? We are refugees from the Virgin Islands. And I saw that. That was headlines in the paper in Puerto Rico. I put that paper in my bag, but I think I left it in (New) Jersey.

And I said, ‘What? We are refugees. Oh my God. They’re on the TV station, talking about refugees from St. Thomas and the other islands.

The doctors and nurses, they were beautiful. The food, that those people were given, it was horrible. They had everybody on the second floor and when I saw what was going on I said, ‘No – no, no, no. I was just crying.’

There were people there who had no legs, and there were people there who had one leg. There were people there who were blind. There were people there in wheelchairs. And they didn’t allow the family to come with them.

JS: They didn’t allow the family …

Torres: No! They didn’t allow the family. So, I’m saying to my roommate, ‘How are they managing? How do they get to the airport? Who’s taking care of them? How do they get to the bathroom.

Who’s taking care? Who’s bathing them, and stuff like that? But what I noticed, on the second floor – I went there – they were bringing students from different colleges.

And I see, there were checking their vital signs and checking the blood sugars and stuff like that. So I said, ‘So, you’re getting experience. You’re getting good experience for you guys,’ and so.

I just went there to see what was going on, one way and I stopped eating. I just went downstairs and bought my food. I asked them for my medication because I didn’t have any, and I’m hypertensive. I needed medication.

… ‘Oh, I’m gonna get it for you. And, ‘Oh, (Inaudible)’

I said, ‘Look here. Could you please give me a prescription? So then I can go and get my own mediicine.

And that’s how – three days later – I got my own medicine. I could have had a stroke or something like that.

You know, you’re hyper! You’re hyper from something that’s going over here. My house is damaged, I leave my son – just come here from New York City – he doesn’t know anything, he doesn’t know anybody.

You know what I mean? And I’m saying, ‘Ahhh … I think it’s stress. Whether you take medication or not, the pressure wasn’t going to go down. It’s just the stress.

To me? You didn’t have anybody to talk to. To me, I don’t know about anybody else …

JS: What you’re saying is no emergency coordinators are coming to speak to you.

Torres: I don’t see anybody.

JS: Nobody from the Virgin Islands.

Torres: No one from the Virgin Islands. None. You hear? And that’s what bothered me the most. That’s what bothered me the most.

You don’t even send a representative. Good God! You mean, there’s nobody? Nobody you can send?

These are people who voted for you. That’s why I’m so damn mad at this. We voted for you and put you all in and thing. You just ignoring everything? We just put you there …

Waaa? I was pissed!

JS: Let’s go back a second. You’re seeing the folks who came with you. Do you remember how many folks traveled? Do you remember the number of folks who traveled with you?

Torres: I think two. Two traveled with me.

JS: Two traveled with you but then when you got there, the next day, there was more than two, three folks?

Torres: Yeah, there, there … I don’t know how many, but there was quite a lot.

JS: A dozen?

Torres: No, man. There was like a hundred, something.

JS: Alright. Do you remember what date that might have been? Were you still in September?

Torres: Yeah

JS: You were still in September. And how many days? OK. Irma had passed. But Maria hadn’t come yet?

Torres: Nah.

JS: Good.

Torres: Let me tell you what happened. The third night, let me think – the third night. We’re going into the fourth night, I don’t know exact … About eight o’clock at night, Karen, my roommate, she was sick. A foot, she had surgery on her foot and she was taking medication.

I was watching telelvision. And I hear BAM-BAM! on the door. BAM-BAM!! on the door.

And I’m saying, ‘What the Hell’s going on here? BAM-BAM!!

And I say, ‘Should I go to the door?

And I go to the door. And there’s a Spanish man and woman at the door.

‘Pack your things. You leave now.’

I said, ‘What?’

JS: About what time is this?

Torres: About eight o’clock. A little after eight.

I said, ‘Pack your things? You leave now?? Where are we going?’

She wouldn’t answer.

I said, ‘Look here, i need to know where we’re going. I need to let my family know where I am.

I’m scared, you know. I’m telling you. Puerto Rico is not my place. They’re not my people either. You understand? And I’m saying it! You can write it! I’m saying it ‘cause I’m serious about this.

I said, ‘Look. If you don’t tell me where we’re going, I’m not going anywhere.’

OK? Then the Spanish man walked into the room, and he stand over Karen in there, sleeping.

‘Get up. You have to pack your things.” And she was all drowsy and everything.

She says, ‘What’s going on?’

So, we didn’t have anything. it’s just a few little things that I had bought for myself. I threw them in a bag and I’m going through the door.

And the lady’s saying, ‘Oh, Um – We’re just trying to do the best we can. The Health Department sent us here to get you all out of here.

I said, ‘What?’

‘We’re doing this … ’

I said, ‘You’re doing best you can? Let me tell you something. With the food, and the way you all treating us, that’s the best you can do?

I said, ‘Your best is not enough!’

And I said, ‘Look here. You .. you … ‘

She said, ‘You’re going to a shelter over there.’

I said, “Over there, where??’

She still can’t tell me. ‘Oh, Oh …’

I said, ‘OK. I’ll see.’ I went downstairs and I met Bernard, the one from St. John.

JS: Oh, no!

Torres: Yes, you know you hear me talk about Bernard. I met Bernard in the lobby, sitting down. And a there was a bunch of young soldiers – Army guys – in the lobby. A bunch of them, like a hundred or so.

It seems to me they were putting us out for the soldiers.

And I said, ‘Put the damn young guys – soldiers, out to rough. They’re accustomed to it. Not these elderly people, who have no legs and can’t see. Put them in there!’

JS: What was the name of the place you were staying in?

Torres: What’s the name of the hotel … What’s the name of the hotel? I’ll have to ask Bernard, because you now, those people, they’re innocent.

But anyway – I said, Ophelia, I’m going to jot down numbers and I’m going by the KMart. I’m not going to any shelter.

He said, ‘There’s no hurricane down here. Why are they putting us in a shelter? Why?’

I said, ‘I’m not going either. I’m going to sleep in this thing, in the street, but I am not going to any shelter.’

When I look, I see them bringing out the people in wheelchairs and stuff like that. The soldiers all line up.

I said, ‘Yeah. They put you out to put the soldiers in. That’s what they’re doing.’

We managed to get a room in that same hotel … I can’t remember the name of it. In that same hotel, and we stayed there two nights.

And those people had never moved the garbage out of the room, and they never changed the bed. The same person who was in that bed, I had slept in the same bed.

They never changed the bed and they never moved the garbage. We were refugees in Puerto Rico.

Lord, I don’t hate. God forgive me, for saying this but … they think we’re stupid. They think we’re idiots, and they think we are refugees. And I’ve always known they had a prejudice against people from the Virgin Islands.

But I see a first hand example of that.

JS: Who all stayed with you in the hotel with you?

Torres: I don’t know their names. That’s the trouble.

JS: How many were there?

Torres: It was about a hundred and something of them.

JS: Yes, I know. But now they’re moving people into shelters. How many managed to stay in the hotel?

Torres: I know the Kum Wah (Restaurant)family. The Kum Wah people, they stayed. Bernard stayed and I stayed. We went back with our own money.

‘Cause they came up and said, ‘Well (inaudible) if you need a room, why don’t you go back? Which means they had rooms.

They said, ‘Go back.’ So we went back with our own money and we stayed there in the hotel.

So anyway, I called my son in Jersey. And he said, ‘Mom, I told you get out of there. Get out of there. C’mon, go to Jersey. Come. We’re waiting for you. We made arrangements already. Come.’

The next morning I went to dialysis and … I need to tell you this.

While we’re in the room … a knock on the door. Here comes another one! I don’t know who she is, they’re not saying who they are.

And she says, ‘We are not responsible for you anymore. You have to find your own way to the dialysis center tomorrow.’

Just because we decided we were not going to tolerate their (expletive)! They were not responsible for us anymore, so they were not going to feed us. They were not going to give us transportation. We had to find our own way there.

Them bastards! That’s what they did … that’s what they did.

And I said, ‘Lady, get the (expletive) away from the door.’ I just sat up there and closed the door.

I was so upset. I said, ‘Lady, get away from the door.’

So just because we decided – Look here. I’m not going to any shelter – you determine that? OK.

Look, you ain’t bring me down here. OK?

Anyway, the next morning we got a cab and we went down to the dialysis center. I was talking to the nurse. And he said, ‘Ms. Torres, I asked them why did they do that to you all? At that time of night? Why did they have to throw you out?’

And he said they – the rep was, whoever – that, ‘Well the FEMA person came and said, ‘Why do you have these people in this hotel?’

JS: What was the name of the person at the dialysis center who said this to you?

Torres: A nurse, a nurse. He was an RN, I don’t know. He was in charge of the dialysis center. That’s what he told me.

And he said, ‘You know what they were planning for you all? They were planning – some of the guys went to the shelter, they said it was horrible. Fresenius just built a brand new dialysis center way, way out in the countryside. They were looking for places for you all to live out there. And that’s where they would take you all.

JS: What’s the name of this place?

Torres: No, he didn’t tell me the name of the place. He didn’t tell me but he said it’s way, way out … So you imagine what would have happened if they moved these people? More people would have died, they’re taking them damn people to this place …

JS: Now, by November, the New York Times was reporting about the problems at the hospitals in Puerto Rico after Maria. Now this conversation you’re having occured before Maria struck?

Torres: Before Maria struck. So he said, ‘That’s where they’re planning to take you all. You are going there.’

I said, ‘Really?’ Well, I got a ticket. My son made reservations for me. And that Sunday, before Maria, I was on my way to Jersey.

What I understand from my friend – she went to the shelter – she said, ‘Ms. Torres, it was horrible,’ she said, ‘They had cots. They had one bathroom, where you had to walk up steps.’

I said, ‘What the Hell did the people with no legs did? How did they manage?’

She said (inaudible) – Juliette, she was a teacher, she was at Cancryn … she’s in dialysis right now, coming home – she said Juliette said there was a gentleman who had a cot next to her.

And she said, ‘Ms. Torres, he sat on that cot and cried all night,’ she said, ‘he bawl all night.’

And all they had was two security guard knocking ‘round and ‘round them, all night.

She said, ‘Look, I didn’t sleep. it’s walk I walk.’

And she said now, when it’s time, after Maria was coming, when they’re trying to take them out, to bring them to Florida – she said people who was in that shelter were stealing one another’s stuff. They were taking … Oh, my God.

JS: So, were there people in the shelter, besides folks from the Virgin Islands?

Torres: No. It seems to me like folks from the Virgin Islands was taking one another’s stuff.

JS: Sick, old people who came from the Virgin Islands were taking things from each other? They’re the only people in the shelter?

Torres: As far as I know … as far as I know. Anyway, Karen told me that they went to dialysis, the day before Maria, and there came a great big bus. They take them straight to the airport. So they were not able to go back to the shelter to get their belongings …

(Laughs) What the hell is this?

JS: How many do you think there might have …

Torres: She told me it was a hundred and something of them that went on to Miami. They took them to Miami. When they got to Miami, they had no place for them to stay.

So they put them in the basement of some university, with no beds, no cots. They were on the floor, on sheets.

JS: And this is in Miami?

Torres: This is in Miami. OK? She started to call her daughter in Virginia. And her daughter drove from Virginia to Miami and came and got her. They drove all night.

When she got her back to Virginia, where her daughter was, they had to put her straight in the hospital. She was in the hospital two weeks.

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