For most people a trip to The Bahamas is supposed to be relaxing, but for a Grand Forks physician who went to the country after Hurricane Dorian’s devastation, it was a life-changing event.
Dr. Rene Fredstrom of Altru Health System -- who once worked at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby and who continues to own a seasonal property with husband Judd in Merrifield -- went to the island nation to provide care for evacuees with International Medical Relief, which partners with the World Health Organization. There, she saw tragedy and despair, but came away with a sense of purpose.
“Some really sad stories,” she said. “People who are suicidal, so hopeless. They’ve lost everything, family members. Especially the undocumenteds because they can’t leave; they don’t have documents to get back to Haiti. They don’t have documents to leave The Bahamas.”
Hurricane Dorian wreaked havoc on the archipelago nation, which lies to the south and west of Florida. In particular, the islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco suffered extensive damage during the September storm, which devastated homes and infrastructure, necessitating many to be evacuated. Fredstrom, part of a team of eight, went to the capital of Nassau on New Providence island from Oct. 12-19 to provide medical care.
There she worked with evacuees and soon found that the people most in need were undocumented and afraid to go to the government for assistance.
“It’s open door; we’ll treat anybody. Obviously, we’re targeting the evacuees, the refugees,” Fredstrom said. “The way the story has unfolded in The Bahamas, we were really trying to focus (on) the undocumented people, which were primarily Haitians. Because they are undocumented, they don’t have access to all the relief that the government is providing. All the donations are going to the government and they are not seeing that.”
Her group treated several different kinds of wounds and injuries with donated supplies. She saw illnesses, such as strep throat, scabies, skin infections, fungal infections, respiratory infections and diabetes.
After long days that saw her treat as many as 130 people per day, her group's members retired to the church where they were sleeping to prepare hygiene bags and bags of dry rice and beans. The medical supplies were donated by Altru.
“Super supportive,” she said about the hospital where she works. “Altru themselves donated medications and supplies … The nurses were awesome; they donated a lot of the hygiene stuff.”
With immigration officers cracking down after Dorian, Fredstrom’s team took to setting up the clinic in local churches, a place of sanctuary for undocumented workers. The group even went as far as taking its sign down to not alert the officers, and relied on word of mouth as to where care was being provided.
“The immigration officers will not raid a church,” she said. “They will raid a public building, they will raid your house, but they will not raid a church.”
The situation was such that when immigration officers asked to enter a church, they were stalled at the front, while workers left through the back.
Fredstrom didn’t let the grim situation get the best of her. That included the story of a woman holding her child, her arm crushed by floating debris as she clung to a pole in the floodwaters -- only to lose the baby in the rushing waters.
“It can be depressing,” she said. “Medicine in general is like that. There are always sad stories, even here in the States. People that you can’t make better, so you have coping mechanisms. I think the hardest part is that there was just so much at once in The Bahamas.”
She said she felt overwhelmed at times, but also feels determined.
“I guess the obvious is it motivates me to want to go back and do more,” Fredstrom said. “Plus it inspires you, because you do also see the good in people, obviously the churches there that are reaching out and helping, as well.”
Fredstrom said she intends to go back with IMR.
“Oh, it’ll work out,” she said. “I’ll get back. I will go back.”
People wishing to donate can reach International Medical Relief at www.internationalmedicalrelief.org.