Biloxi VA nurses support Puerto Rican relief effort


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Three Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System (GCVHCS) registered nurses returned from Puerto Rico Feb. 1 after a two-week volunteer effort supporting Caribbean Veterans Health Care System (VACHS) personnel and facilities after a rash of earthquakes struck the island in January.

Registered Nurses Betzi Solla, Lucy Martin and Marguerita Pena-Agressott spent two weeks in Puerto Rico, volunteering through the Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System (DEMPS) program. They joinined other Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA) medical professionals from across the United States to augment VACHS staff at the island nation’s VA hospital.

All three GCVHCS nurses worked 12-hour shifts for the duration of their stay, returning Feb. 1.

According to Pena-Aggressot, there were more than 950 earthquakes which struck the island nation since December 2019. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 500 were a magnitude 2 or higher, including the Jan. 10 magnitude 6.4 earthquake which caused island-wide power outages and destruction.

“Although we were not in the immediate vicinity of the earthquake, the aftershocks were still felt,” Pensa-Aggressot said. “I first thought there might have been loose tiles as I walked across the courtyard of the hospital, but residents there told me otherwise.”

Pena-Agressott, Solla and Martin, temporarily housed at an undamaged hotel in Condado – a few miles from the VACHS main facility in San Juan, Puerto Rico – arrived on the island Jan. 18, a week after the worst of the earthquakes. According to Solla, many VACHS employees were deployed to clinics and shelters on the south of the island, with DEMPS volunteers staffing the VACHS hospital to provide coverage.

Providing Assistance

Martin, a Destin, Fla., native, and nurse manager at the GCVHCS Eglin VA Clinic, was assigned rotations in the hospital’s emergency room, triaging emergencies, placing IVs and catheters, drawing blood and stabilizing patients. Despite the twelve-hour rotation, however, she said the similarities to other natural disasters she encountered forged her desire to provide direct assistance to the employees and Veterans in another Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN).

“I love to help people,” she said. “I went through [Hurricane] Katrina and know what it is to lose everything. Every day, they [VACHS staff] thanked us and said if we were not there, they would have been short-staffed and would not be able to care for the Veterans.”

Pena-Agressott, a New York native whose parents are natives of Puerto Rico, has been a registered nurse for nearly 35 years, with the past five at the Panama City Beach VA Clinic. She was assigned to the VACHS Hospital’s Medical/Surgical floor as a staff nurse for the two-week assignment, something she said that, while difficult, remained a positive experience.

“We worked 12-hour days and Medical Surgery is still as hard as it was when I was doing it 20 years ago,” she said. “But the staff and the Veterans were so grateful for our support and all those nights of swollen feet and late dinners didn’t matter. I would do this again in a heartbeat, because it’s my parent’s home, because there was a need and because I am a nurse.”

Solla, a Puerto Rico native and Skilled Home Health and Hospice coordinator for the GCVHCS Office of Community Care, worked in the Medicine/Hematology/Oncology Unit while in Puerto Rico. Now living in Ocean Springs, Miss., Solla has worked as a registered nurse for twelve years and maintains close ties to the home she knows.

“[Puerto Ricans] have been hit with natural disasters since Hurricane Maria,” she said. “They just recovered from that and have now been impacted by another. My people, my family, are being impacted by these earthquakes and I felt the need to be there for them and be part of helping them. As a nurse in the GCVHCS I have the duty to take care of Veterans, and as DEMPS volunteer I am able to go serve and utilize my professional and personal skills to serve our nation’s heroes, our Veterans and their families.”

VHA’s deployment program

The Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System (DEMPS) is VHA’s main deployment program for clinical and non-clinical staff to an emergency or disaster. The DEMPS Program may be used for an internal VA mission, as well as supporting a mission after a Presidential Disaster Declaration under the National Response Frameworks Emergency Support Function #8 (Public Health and Medical Services).

The three GCVHCS nurses most recently activated through the DEMPS program said the short-fused nature of an emergency requires advanced planning, and programs such as DEMPS ensure continuity of care for individuals in impacted areas.

“DEMPS is very important for the VA Health Care as it is a resource available to ensure that Veterans in a facility which has gone through a natural disaster or emergency can continue to receive the care they need,” Solla said. “By sending support staff providing the best quality and access to care ensures Veterans don’t need to sacrifice more than they already have.”

Pena-Agressott added that the inconveniences faced during the two-week deployment paled in comparison to the sacrifices Veterans have made.

“I am humbled by this experience and have more awareness now of what it must’ve taken to serve our country and what it still takes in serving our country,” she said. “Nothing could ever compare to the years of service they [Veterans] have put in for me, for us, for our nation.”

The VA Caribbean Healthcare System provides services to a population of 150,000 Veterans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition to its main facility in San Juan, the VACHS offers services in ten clinics.

The Biloxi Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, along with the Mobile, Pensacola, Eglin and Panama City VA Clinics are all part of the GCVHCS, which is headquartered in Biloxi, Mississippi, and provides a variety of medical outpatient services to more than 70,000 Veterans.


Bruce Cummins is a public affairs specialist at the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System.

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