MAYAGÜEZ, PUERTO RICO – Abigail Matos-Pagán arrived at a bright blue house in Mayagüez, where she was greeted by Beatriz Gastón, who silently led her to her mother’s small room. Matos-Pagán was carrying a covid-19 vaccine for Wildelma Gastón, 88, who is confined to a bed for her arthritis and other health problems.
Wildelma Gastón asked that they put his rosary on his chest and say his “good arm”, where Matos-Pagán injected him with the first dose of Moderna’s vaccine. The five-member Gastón family breathed a sigh of relief. Although the vaccine had been available for months, Wildelma had not been able to go to a vaccination center.
According to the covid data tracker from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Puerto Rico’s vaccination rate in March was one of the lowest among the states and territories of the United States, despite having received more than 1.3 million doses of vaccines. The deployment highlighted the disparities in access to medical services, and the challenges of monitoring and communicating with citizens living in remote places, such as Wildelma.
Each time they returned from school or work, relatives were concerned about the possibility of bringing the virus home to their home, and the threat it posed to Wildelma’s life. During his visit, Matos-Pagán also vaccinated two of Beatriz’s children, who are students at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaqüez.
“We have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” said Beatriz Gastón as she said goodbye with a hug from Matos-Pagán, expressing her gratitude for the home visit. For her, the vaccine is more than just protection against the coronavirus: it allows the family to be with her mother.
For Matos-Pagán, it is a new mission. The nurse, who has led relief efforts after the hurricanes and earthquakes in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, has set out to vaccinate as many people as possible against covid in this US territory. Some residents of Mayagüez, a city on the west coast of the main island, affectionately call “The Queen of Vaccination” and come to their home asking for help to get vaccinated.
According to The New York Times case tracker, as of August 5, Puerto Rico has about 182,000 cases d According to The New York Times case tracker, as of August 5, Puerto Rico adds about 182,000 covid cases and 2,594 deaths. Slightly more than 59% of the population is fully vaccinated, but many of those who are not vaccinated are difficult to locate because they live in remote mountain communities, or have chronic illnesses that force them to stay home.
So far, Matos-Pagán has vaccinated about 1,800 people in Puerto Rico, including 1,000 with chronic illnesses or bedridden.
In the early days of the pandemic, Carmen Blas’s health began to use a wheelchair. Blas, 78, was confined to her home, on the third floor of an apartment building, which kept her safe from contracting COVID, but was later unable to find transportation to go to get vaccinated. In June, her two children, Lisette and Raymond, came from Wisconsin to help and immediately called public health officials to get Blas vaccinated.
“I usually go back every year and this has been the longest time I’ve been away. It was especially hard because my mother’s health worsened and I was worried that I would never see her again, ”said Raymond, who planned to extend his visit for as long as necessary.
Matos-Pagán went to Blas’s house, in Aguadilla, to administer the vaccine. The family happily celebrated the vaccination.
“It has been very special to have personal moments at someone’s home during the vaccination. You can see how much it means to the whole family, ”said Matos-Pagán.
Mobilization during a crisis is not something new for Matos-Pagán. Following Hurricane Maria, which cut off water and electricity across the island and claimed more than 3,000 lives, Matos-Pagán conducted initial community assessments in the most remote and affected cities in Puerto Rico.
Many roads were inaccessible due to flooding and debris, preventing these communities from meeting basic needs such as food, water, prescriptions, and transportation. Then, after a series of earthquakes that shook the island in 2020, leaving more people homeless or in poor structures, Matos-Pagán organized local nurses to provide health care to the community. They supplied at-risk populations with their medications when pharmacies closed and teams set up mobile medical stores next to overcrowded hospitals.
“I am hyperactive and I am always busy in my daily life, but when there is a crisis, I am calm and calm. With feet on the ground. I feel like I am where I should be, ”he said.
Matos-Pagán was born in New York. He became interested in medicine after seeing how nurses helped his mother, who died of complications from an aneurysm when Matos-Pagán was 9 years old. Her mother’s death taught her that “nothing was permanent,” she said, which has inspired her to act when disaster strikes and to support people in the face of tragedy and loss.
Matos-Pagán returned to Puerto Rico to study nursing and later obtained a master’s degree and a doctorate at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. Thanks to her work, she holds several titles: first commander of the Puerto Rico Disaster Response Team, and director and founder of the Nurses Coalition for Communities in Disaster.
Her experience in the management of medical professionals and resources during hurricanes has taken her to places on the Atlantic coast of the United States and the Caribbean. During the covid pandemic, she was hired to help direct the triage (system to select priority patients who arrive at the emergency room) of an intensive care unit, with limited resources, in El Paso, Texas, and in a nursing home very affected in Maryland.
“Not everyone is cut out for this. It’s a really sad and depressing job, ”said Matos-Pagán. “But even when there are miles of victims, lives can be saved and people’s basic needs met. I’ve seen communities come together in incredible ways. It’s a challenge, but that’s what keeps me going ”.
And as he works to quickly inject more covid vaccines into the arms of Puerto Rico residents, Matos-Pagán prepares for the next crisis. Hurricane season officially began in June, and you will be on alert for another potential health challenge until the end of November.
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