“We had a stressful night on the island!” That’s how Puerto Rico volunteer Jeremy Dougherty, NS0S, described a medical emergency on the island of Culebra in which Amateur Radio played a major role. Dougherty, a Force of 50 American Red Cross volunteer who is supporting communication at Culebra Hospital, said fumes from a gasoline fuel container ignited last evening (October 12), seriously injuring a woman who needed immediate help. Dougherty was unable to raise any of the other volunteers in San Juan — likely because of the late hour — but the only doctor at the hospital at the time called Centro de Medico (Medical Central) on a satellite phone to coordinate transportation for the patient. The only other after-hours staff was a nurse.
“This patient was far from being within our scope to treat at this facility,” Dougherty said. “The patient had burns to at least 30% of her body. I had to do a lot of medical work here. The nurse knew the patient — this is a small community — and she left to get belongings from the [burn victim’s] house.” That left Dougherty — a medic who works for the Kansas City (Missouri) Fire Department — to administer first aid.
“I carried out all of the orders the doctor gave me. We cut off a lot of skin. We wrapped her burns,” he recounted. “We got an IV and started IV antibiotics and fluids. I also checked the vitals pretty constantly.”
Helicopter transport to San Juan was arranged for the patient, who was in critical condition, in shock, and shivering; Dougherty said he donated his blanket. He then was tasked with contacting the patient’s family.
At around 0200 UTC, Dougherty got on 40 meters, interrupting a pileup of stations trying to work special event station N4F, which was being run at the time by Kevin Young, KC7FPF, in Bronson, Florida.
“I did not get into specifics. But, I did give him the first name of the patient, the first name of the relative with the phone number, and the facility she was being taken to,” Dougherty said. “I explained my location and our limited resources. No phones, no internet, no power.” He told Young that the victim had suffered burns from a gasoline explosion and was in critical condition.
“We had complete radio silence while we were passing traffic,” Dougherty said. “We were literally passing traffic as the helicopter flew overhead.” KC7FPF told ARRL he was able to contact the family and relay the news.
“I heard a station calling asking for a break among the pileup,” Young said. “I could tell this was different than the rest…I instructed all stations to stand by and let me reply.”
Young said copy was poor with an increasing noise level, but he was able to pull out NS0S, get the message, and pass along the news to the family in Connecticut. He said he’d remain available if any further help was needed.
The woman was transferred from Culebra to the burn unit at Centro de Medico. Using WinLink2 e-mail, Dougherty asked the American Red Cross Amateur Radio volunteers in San Juan to reach out to a friend of the victim to explain the situation and her status.
Dougherty said he successfully passed the information to notify the patient’s family, noting Young’s extreme patience as they attempted to send call signs and messages hampered by poor conditions. “He definitely stepped up to the challenge of the unexpected emergency and handled it quite well,” Dougherty said. “Someone needs to pin a medal on his chest.”
Dougherty said he was able to get the hospital’s HF antenna back up the previous evening, with help from local firefighters.
On October 15, Dougherty and Matthew Gonter, AC4MG, made it possible for physicians in Culebra and in Fajardo, respectively, to communicate directly in an effort to evacuate a patient who is an amputee. “The chief doctor and the administrator at the Fajardo hospital were all smiles; as the doctor told AC4MG, ‘You guys saved a life today,’” Force of 50 volunteer Val Hotzfeld, NV9L related.