Boxes Full of Hope

Michelle Ramirez, J99, led an effort from her apartment in New York to send medical relief supplies to Puerto Rico
Michelle Ramirez with boxes of relief supplies for Puerto Rico
Michelle Ramirez at a warehouse with just some of the supplies she helped collect for Puerto Rico relief. “The call to action has been an amazing experience,” she said. Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Ramirez
December 13, 2017

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It has been nearly three months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on September 20, crippling infrastructure and leaving people all across the island without power or water. As the government continues to work to restore essential services, Tufts Now reached out to three alumni born and raised in Puerto Rico, to learn how the hurricane impacted their lives and how they have pitched in to offer relief. In the third part of this series, we profile Michelle Ramirez, J99, a doctor specializing in pediatric critical care in New York. Read earlier stories about Nuria Ortiz and Debora Silva.  

From her home in New York City, Michelle Ramirez, J99, remembers seeing a photo soon after Hurricane Maria that showed doctors in Puerto Rico operating by flashlight. A specialist in pediatric intensive care at New York Presbyterian Hospital, she instantly recognized the challenges—and the resourcefulness—of doctors doing what they could in hospitals desperately short on medicine, with little or unreliable power, and in desperate need of life-saving medications.

She did not realize how important her own actions would be.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Ramirez was relieved that her family in San Juan was safe; they were still in their apartment and a generator provided power, though only during the day. She recalled her own experience as a child in 1989, when Hurricane Hugo forced her family to seek refuge in a friend’s house far from the surging ocean. She remembers peeking out a window and the surreal experience of seeing a cat or perhaps a dog fly by, carried off by the wind.   

Hurricane Maria, though, was much worse. “My family and friends were living through a disaster that we never had imagined,” she said. “I also knew about the bureaucracy that would slow aid, and that we’re treated as second-class citizens by the United States. Knowing all that, I knew I had to do something.”

Seeking out like-minded doctors who wanted to directly help with relief efforts, she partnered with two physicians from her hospital who had also graduated from medical school in Puerto Rico. She already knew one of the doctors, and connected with the other through the Doctoras Boricuas network, created by a Florida-based physician to build a supply chain of medical supply donations. 

Two days later the three physicians were having tea and talking about what to do. “We were thinking: we have to get these things to people who need them now,” Ramirez said.

With a high school friend based in Miami, Ramirez created an Amazon wish list. Items ranged from antibiotics, insulin test strips, medications, and cleaning wipes to intravenous syringes, walkers, and crutches. “I sent her the list and she uploaded it and arranged items,” Ramirez said, while another colleague set up a GoFundMe site to separately raise money that could be used to buy medications directly.

Ramirez didn’t have to wait long to get a response to her wish list. Within a day, boxes started arriving at her apartment, so many in one day that “we couldn’t open the door,” she recalled. Over one four-day period, more than 450 boxes were delivered to the two-bedroom, eighth floor, 1,200-square-foot Brooklyn apartment she shares with her husband, seven-year-old daughter, and their dog, a Hungarian Vizsla.  

With the help of other physicians and friends, she inventoried and organized everything and repacked the goods, meticulously consolidating content and numbering the boxes. “We needed to make it easy for whoever was picking up each box to know what was inside,” she said.

Meanwhile, the GoFundMe site for ordering medications was gaining momentum, and within a week had raised $24,000. “That was amazing,” she said.    

After much effort and with assistance from a private benefactor, the boxes from Brooklyn were eventually trucked to Florida, where they were then flown to the Pediatric University Hospital in San Juan. From there, they were distributed to hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and shelters.

Ramirez estimates 8,000 pounds of supplies were collected at her apartment; when combined with other donations, the total was some 13,000 pounds of supplies. “The call to action has been an amazing experience,” she said.

It’s also been an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of diaspora, as she did in her blog. It is a word she said she used to think carried a negative connotation, as it refers to people who have left their homeland. “Now, diaspora has a whole new meaning,” she wrote. “It fills me with a sense of unity. . . . I am so proud of and hopeful for humankind when I see how the 5 million Puerto Ricans who live outside the island, who for one reason or another had to leave their home, have come together in all sorts of humanitarian efforts. These are the moments when I think, maybe, humanity does stand a chance.”

Those interested in helping can contribute to the Doctorus Boricuas fund for Hurricane Maria relief in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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