For One Father And Son In Puerto Rico, A Storm Was Just The Latest Trial : Shots - Health News The Martinez family has been waiting more than a year for a neurologist to diagnose the son's condition. He needs a diagnosis to be eligible for the health care he needs, but can't get an appointment.
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For One Father And Son In Puerto Rico, A Storm Was Just The Latest Trial

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For One Father And Son In Puerto Rico, A Storm Was Just The Latest Trial

For One Father And Son In Puerto Rico, A Storm Was Just The Latest Trial

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's been six months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. There are still towns without power and water, and Puerto Rico faces a severe doctor shortage. Daily life is hard for many but more so for families caring for people with a serious illness. Reporter Sarah Varney visited with one family in the town of Cayey and brings us this story.

SARAH VARNEY, BYLINE: To reach the home we're going to in Puerto Rico's central mountains, social worker Eileen Calderon steers around piles of dirt and treacherous potholes and power company trucks blocking the road. Finally we pull up to a sagging cement home, the roof done in by Hurricane Maria. Laundry hangs under a tarp, and a cat is tied to a leash outside the door.

EILEEN CALDERON: (Speaking Spanish).

OSVALDO MARTINEZ SR.: (Speaking Spanish).

CALDERON: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: Calderon has brought a nurse, Anamelia Velazquez, and a primary care doctor, Carla Rossotti, to check in on Osvaldo Martinez and his son, Osvaldo Daniel Martinez. Inside a darkened bedroom, Martinez Sr., the 67-year-old former star pitcher in the local baseball league, spoons rice and sausage into his son's mouth.

Martinez Jr. lays in a hospital bed. His arms and fingers spasm, and his eyes loll around in his head. He's 37 years old, born in Chicago, a former security guard. Some three years ago after they moved back to Puerto Rico from Illinois, Martinez Jr. started showing early signs of multiple sclerosis, or MS. Over the last year, his world became this room, then this bed.

MARTINEZ SR.: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: Martinez Sr. points to the ceilings that are leaking from the morning's rain and covered in mold. Hurricane Maria badly damaged their home. He says the power came back on about a month ago. And they have running water, so he can keep his son clean. A few times a day he fills a pail, bathes his son, rolls him on his side and changes his diaper.

OSVALDO MARTINEZ JR.: (Groaning).

VARNEY: But Dr. Rossotti, whose company VarMed has been paid by the Puerto Rican government to help take care of him, says Martinez Jr. can't get an appointment to see a neurologist to confirm his multiple sclerosis and start treatment. There's a chronic shortage of neurologists on the island, and the ones who remain have few slots for Medicaid patients, says Rossotti.

CARLA ROSSOTTI: We have a patient that was, you know, stable within his conditions a year ago, and now he's bedridden. And he has dysphagia. Like, he can't swallow. And he hasn't been able to even get that neurologist evaluation. So therefore...

VARNEY: And you all have been trying to get him a neurologist appointment for a year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

ROSSOTTI: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: But no taking anymore.

VARNEY: People here in Puerto Rico talk about life before Maria and life after. But for many of the island's most vulnerable residents, the storm exacerbated problems that existed long before. The island's financial crisis sent physicians fleeing to the states, but Hurricane Maria fueled the exodus. There's no exact accounting yet of just how many physicians have left the island.

So for now, Martinez Jr. lays in bed, each day and night no different than the next, as the disease lays siege to his central nervous system, disrupting the vital connection between brain and body. Without a confirmed diagnosis, he can't get certain benefits. And he isn't taking medication for his condition or his pain.

MARTINEZ SR.: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: The outward perseverance of both men belies the true terror of their confinement. As Martinez Sr. describes his son's decline, he tears up. And his son, who can understand everything, rolls on his side.

MARTINEZ SR.: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: "I have to do all that needs to be done for him," he says. But Martinez Sr. is 67 and not in good health himself. He has severe arthritis and a painful bulge in his abdomen. During the months they went without power, he says, the hospital bed didn't go up and down. He shows me a photo of his arm, black and blue and swollen from pressing against the metal bars of the bed to tend to his son. But it's his son's withering away that tears at him most.

MARTINEZ SR.: (Speaking Spanish).

VARNEY: "If something would happen to me," he says, clasping his hands together in prayer, "I don't know." In Cayey, Puerto Rico, I'm Sarah Varney.

CORNISH: Sarah Varney is with our partner Kaiser Health News.

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