The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

How to heal when disaster strikes: UNC pharamacist helps Puerto Rico hurricane survivors

Jennifer Kelly and her team in Puerto Rico pose with Puerto Rican flag. They arrived in Puerto Rico to provide medical assistance and set up a clinic. Photo courtesy of Kelly.

Jennifer Kelly, a critical care pharmacist at UNC who works in the emergency department, has combined her medical training with a passion for service. As a member of the Disaster Medical Assistance Team under the Federal Government, Kelly was able to serve communities affected by Hurricane Irma and Harvey. University Desk staff writer Brooke Bauman, sat down with her to talk about her experience. 

The Daily Tar Heel: How did you become involved with the disaster medicine team? 

Jennifer Kelly: So I took a disaster medicine course during pharmacy school at the University of Georgia and I got recruited out of that. I joined the team back in 2010 just as a pharmacy tech when I was still in school and then when I graduated, I switched over to being a pharmacist.

DTH: So can you kind of walk us through your experience in Puerto Rico and what that was like?

JK: We went to a small town called Comerio, which is in the mountains. It’s actually where the eye of the hurricane went through so people’s homes were completely destroyed: no food, water, electricity, things like that. We pretty much had to go house to house: that’s how people spread the word, because there was no newspaper, internet, no way to notify people that we were even opening a clinic. 

It was pretty much basic medical care, getting people access to their long-term medications. We didn’t have to deal a lot with the acute injuries that you think of with a disaster. Like you’d think you’d have a lot of broken legs, things like that. We had a few skin infections, things like that, but for the most part, it was people that had heart failure or things like that that we took care of and gave access to care for.

DTH: And so what did you learn from the experience? 

JK: One thing I took away was that I think it would have been a very different response if this had happened on the mainland in the United States. They are so community-driven that before the storm hit, they knew whose house was sturdiest so they all went over to that house. My experience in Houston was very different than that. In Houston, we actually set up at the big shelter that was housing everybody. Most of the hospitals were quasi-running so we would just send like the really sick people there, but it was just a lot of psych stuff because people were really stressed out and depressed. We had a lot of drug overdoses because people, they’re addicted, they go without supply for a while and then when they start getting their supply back in, they get addicted like that. 

DTH: So how will you use your experience in future crises?

JK: Well, I think us breaking up into small groups and going up into the rural areas that don’t have access to the medical centers was actually a very different thing from what we normally do. What we normally do, and what we’re trained to do, is set up like ERs, pretty much, emergency rooms. We would either build our own, we have all the supplies to do that, or we would augment what already exists, so just give them the supplies they need, the manpower. So this was one of the first times that they broke the teams down into what we call these health medical task forces. I think that’s going to be a model that they move towards more. 

DTH: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of the job?

JK: The most challenging part is just having to up and leave your life for 2-4 weeks at a time and not having much notice and just getting prepared for that and mentally ready. And then being away from family and responsibilities here and feeling like other people are picking up the pieces when you can’t be there. And then the most rewarding part is just the response we get from the communities. They’re so happy to have us there. In Puerto Rico, the very last night, one of the big restaurants shut down and they had us come and eat for free. And people showed up in droves to our clinic. So just knowing that they needed us and that we could help was rewarding.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.