Miami’s Bascom Palmer: Offering eye care in battered Puerto Rico


Bascom Palmer Eye Institute’s clinical professionals know that every natural disaster has a unique impact on the delivery of sight-saving vision care. After Hurricane Katrina in 2006, our physician-led team spent two weeks in Louisiana and Mississippi providing eye care to residents and first responders. Within 48 hours after the 2010 earthquake, a team from Bascom Palmer arrived in Haiti with ophthalmic equipment and supplies to offer general medical aid and eye surgery. The following year, we transported the Vision Van, our mobile eye clinic, across the Pacific to serve as a base for Japanese ophthalmologists caring for victims of the deadly earthquake and tsunami.

Now we are actively engaged in providing different levels of support to Puerto Rico’s vision specialists and patients as part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s coordinated response to the unprecedented devastation caused by Hurricane Maria.

Our professionals flew in to San Juan carrying perishable medications for patients with glaucoma, macular degeneration and other chronic conditions. We also helped arrange transport for young children with vision-threatening problems so they could be treated on the mainland.

Next, we took an innovative approach to addressing the breakdown in communications caused by destruction of cell phone towers and the almost total loss of power. To help ophthalmologists on the island coordinate patient care, we launched “Eye Care PR,” an online communications network using Facebook and the WhatsApp mobile messaging application.

We contacted leaders in Puerto Rico’s ophthalmology community, who added eye care professionals to the social media and messaging list, hosted by our IT team in Miami. That allowed physicians, clinics and hospitals in Puerto Rico to coordinate patient calls, for example, if they were open or closed for emergency services.We also partnered with WAPA television in San Juan, which stayed on the air during the hurricane, to broadcast public service announcements about eye care and the online communications channel.

Recognizing that Puerto Rico’s recovery will be a difficult, long-term process, our institute took another step to support the U.S. territory’s physicians and patients in collaboration with The American Academy of Ophthalmology and eye centers and ophthalmologists in cities with large populations of Puerto Ricans.

We are now coordinating Eye Care: Puerto Rico (#EyeCarePuertoRico), for Puerto Ricans who have left the island and need to contact a physician for emergency eye care in the U.S. After treatment, the patients will reconnect with their eye doctors in Puerto Rico, to promote continuity of care.

As Puerto Rico rebuilds its medical infrastructure and utility crews restore power to the island, our ophthalmologists are in daily contact with their colleagues on the island to see what medications or supplies are needed to provide support during this stressful period.

Why is Bascom Palmer so actively involved in these national and international medical relief efforts? Simply put, this is fundamental to our global mission of service.

While we are proud of our consistent series of #1 rankings in ophthalmology for clinical care, vision research and medical education, our physicians, scientists, nurses and other professionals are also dedicated to serving communities in need of vision care.

When Hurricane Irma threatened South Florida on Sept. 8, our medical team spent two nights at our flagship location in Miami with their family members. Within an hour, our surgeons began treating patients who suffered vision-threatening eye injuries from the storm.

In the next week, we sent our Vision Van to Key West to treat first-responders from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. From there, our clinic traveled to Southwest Florida to serve as a temporary patient facility until damage at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at Naples was repaired. While our disaster response efforts draw the most attention, Bascom Palmer also organizes local health fairs, vision screenings and educational programs throughout the year. It’s another aspect of our deep commitment to serving our community.

Eduardo C. Alfonso, M.D., is director of Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, and professor and Kathleen & Stanley J. Glaser Chair in Ophthalmology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.