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USF physicians travel to the Bahamas to treat hurricane evacuees

The university is responding to the tragedy as its own employee is affected.
A team of physicians from the University of South Florida flew to Nassau, Bahamas, to aid in treating Hurricane Dorian evacuees. (Courtesy of USF) [Photos courtesy of USF]

As Hurricane Dorian barreled through her hometown on the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, all Shaquria Adderley could do was wait.

Adderley is an instructor and researcher in the physician assistant program at the University of South Florida, and has lived in the Tampa Bay area for six years. It was excruciating, knowing the Category 5 storm was passing slowly over her home where her mother and grandparents still lived, and not being able to do anything about it, she said.

“I was basically non-functional until I heard something,” Adderley said. “Not knowing is worse than knowing.”

The hurricane decimated the Abaco Islands. More than 10,000 evacuees are in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, where they live in temporary shelters as the nation begins to recover and rebuild.

Last week, a team of physicians with USF Health traveled to Nassau to aid in treating evacuees. The team, made up of internal medicine physicians, infectious disease doctors and pediatricians, has responded in the aftermath of numerous natural disasters, from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, to the Panhandle after Hurricane Michael.

RELATED: The two Bahamas: One still devastated, the other again welcoming tourists

The team contacted the Ministry of Health in the Bahamas to obtain temporary medical licenses and flew to the island of New Providence, said Dr. Elimarys Perez-Colon. They treated mostly children, some who had lost parents or siblings.

Dr. Elima Perez-Colon is an internal medicine specialist and pediatrician with the University of South Florida. Photo courtesy of USF [Photo courtesy of USF]

“We heard these stories of families spending 12 hours under water in their homes. It was heartbreaking,” said Perez-Colon, an internal medicine specialist and pediatrician.

Prior to their trip, the USF Health physician team sent several planeloads of medical and other supplies to the Bahamas, thanks to partners like the Moffitt Cancer Center, Tampa General Hospital, Sheltair and ExecuJet, which operated the private plane carrying the goods. Supplies included generators, first aid kids, medical supplies and infant formula. In total, the team sent 20 flights and more than 20,000 pounds of supplies to the Bahamas, said Dr. Asa Oxner, a primary care physician at USF Health.

Dr. Asa Oxner is a primary care physician and professor with the University of South Florida. Photo courtesy of USF [Photo courtesy of USF]

“We have a great team from all of the colleges inside USF Health that work together to do relief missions,” Oxner said. “We began planning when it was still unclear where Dorian was going to hit.”

RELATED: 200 Bahamians arrive in Florida fleeing Dorian’s devastation

Oxner said they treated a lot of patients with injuries and skin infections, as well as patients with exasperated symptoms from chronic illness. Losing access to medication during a disaster is a major concern, she said. They plan to return to the islands next week.

When Adderley, the USF researcher in Tampa, finally heard from her family on Abaco, the news was not good. Her grandfather died during the storm. Her mother nearly did too, as flooding waters rushed into her house, and rose almost to the ceiling. Her family lost their homes and all their possessions.

“My mom is trying to put things back together,” Adderley said, "but everyone has to rebuild.”

Adderley flew to Nassau to meet her mother with supplies. She said her family will hold a funeral service for her grandfather in Nassau.

“You can’t get to Abaco. They aren’t letting people on the island,” she said. “Right now, there’s nothing there. Everything was flattened."

Adderley was thankful to know her employer was there to support evacuees.

“The best way to help with relief is to go there and help rebuild,” she said. “We hear a lot about people donating to the Red Cross and other organizations, but what they need now is people coming in to help them.”

As the Bahamas continues to recover, local officials stressed to the USF doctors that they hope visitors keep coming to their hotels and beaches.

A team of physicians from the University of South Florida flew to Nassau, Bahamas to aid in treating Hurricane Dorian evacuees. (Courtesy of USF) [Photos courtesy of USF]

“It’s important for people to realize that tourism is so important to the Bahamas. Only two islands in the entire chain of the Bahamas was affected, so people should still visit and stay in hotels and eat at their restaurants,” Oxner said. “That will help their economy recover so they can invest to rebuild schools and clinics.”

Oxner also said that monetary donations are more helpful than supplies at this point. USF has started its own hurricane relief fund.

“They have plenty of goods over there,” she said. “But they need money to start rebuilding. So many people lost their jobs and they can’t rebuild their homes.”