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'New normal' for MUSC psychology intern's family in Puerto Rico

He calls the trip to his former home both heart-wrenching and invigorating

Freddie Pastrana-Rivera
Freddie Pastrana-Rivera passes out papers to teachers during a trauma recovery workshop in Puerto Rico. Image from a video by James Monk
Freddie Pastrana-Rivera | | November 8, 2017

Editor's note: In October, Freddie Pastrana-Rivera went to Puerto Rico, the island where he grew up, with a team of MUSC psychologists. They worked with teachers on trauma recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. He wrote this reflection after his return.

My whole family, including my parents, sister, grandparents, aunts, cousins and many friends, are still back home in Puerto Rico. Though they are alive and most still have their homes, they have had to adapt to learning to survive in what they are calling the "new normal" for Puerto Rico, post-Maria.

When I ask them how they are doing, they almost always tell me, "We're blessed and OK." However, implied in the "OK" is that "We're OK ... considering the circumstances."

The new normal for my family has included: spending more than 40 days without electricity, eating canned meat and Vienna sausages almost daily and learning how to hand wash their clothes.

Our team, led by Dr. Rosaura Orengo-Aguayo, was able to collect donations for our families and affected communities. When I first saw my family, I handed them some of these, including batteries, battery-powered fans and flashlights. I do not think I will ever forget seeing my maternal grandmother's face when she said, "This is the best gift you could have ever gotten us." Moments like this remind me of everything we take for granted. 

Freddie Pastrana-Rivera, his father and his sister

Freddie Pastrana-Rivera visits his father and sister. Photo provided
On Sunday, right before our first workshop, I spent the day with my family. My first visit was to my paternal grandmother's church, in which she is pastor, in the mountain municipality of Canóvanas. This town was hit incredibly hard by the storm and is where the first suspected cases of leptospirosis, a potentially fatal disease, were reported after Hurricane Maria.

As soon as my grandmother saw me, she brought me to the front of the church, and asked if I would say a few words related to my team's role in helping Puerto Rico's youth. As I was standing in front of the church members, who had seen me grow up from the moment I was born, my eyes began to water and a knot tightened in my throat.

The faces staring at me were full of pain, grief and loss. Many had experienced significant damage to their homes, with some losing their homes completely, and were now beginning to piece back together their lives following Maria. Able to get a few words of hope, unity, and commitment to helping our children and families, I could see flashes of hope, resilience and strength in their eyes. This moment is one I will never, ever forget. It was such a powerful, impactful experience to see, in real time, the impact of a catastrophic event in my community. 

Professionally, this service trip to Puerto Rico was a once-in-a-lifetime training opportunity. I am humbled and honored to have been provided the opportunity to learn from such an amazing team of trauma specialists (Dr. Orengo-Aguayo, Dr. Regan Stewart and Dr. Michael de Arellano).

I had the opportunity to observe their work, from the development of a proposal to provide a multi-tiered approach for trauma prevention, relief and recovery for school personnel and other health providers, to consultation and collaboration with other accomplished experts and stakeholders in a variety of fields, both in Puerto Rico and abroad. I was even given the opportunity to support the workshops by leading trainings on specific evidence-based skills of psychological first aid adapted for younger children.

Overall, this opportunity was life-changing, heart-wrenching and invigorating. I feel the most energized I have ever been to continue learning about trauma and trauma response and providing care to Puerto Rico, as well as other communities affected by trauma. In closing, I thank my team so much for their dedication to supporting the children and families of PR, since "somos un equipo" ("we are a team").

MUSC psychologists find way to reach more trauma survivors (MUSC News, November 8, 2017) 

MUSC psychologists take trauma expertise to Puerto Rico (MUSC News, October 11, 2017)

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