Uprooted by a Storm, a Nurse Finds a New Home

“I never saw a sky as beautiful and full of stars as in the days after Hurricane Maria,” recalls Candida Reyes-Rodriguez, R.N.

Her view was clear—through the hole in her roof.

Reyes-Rodriguez worked in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in Comerio, Puerto Rico, before the storm that changed everything. She lived with her husband, Raul, an engineer, and their two children Chesare, 10, and Valeria, 8, in a home that sat nearly 50 feet above the Rio la Plata de Comerio with her mother a few blocks away. During the storm, a category 5—considered the worst national disaster on record for Puerto Rico and Dominica—the river rose until it ravaged their home, destroying nearly everything in their beautiful little town, and swooping Candida’s nursing job right out from under them.

That was just the start.

“The roof was gone, so at night, my husband and I would look out at the beautiful stars,” she recalls. It sounds romantic, but in reality, there was no way to remain in the home. They moved to a shelter where Reyes-Rodriguez found herself in an unexpected nursing role once again, helping to save the life of another evacuee who had a heart attack. “It was the longest 10 minutes of my life, giving compressions to this man knowing there was no medication, no equipment and just the hope that someone would show up,” she says. Eventually an ambulance arrived out of nowhere, and the man was taken to a hospital. But the reality and fear of the situation didn’t go away.

For the long term, she knew she needed to save her family. Reyes-Rodriguez herself is a diabetic in need of regular insulin and her son is asthmatic. Neither was able to get medication after the storm. They had no electricity and saw no quick fixes coming their way. They sat down together and discussed their reality. The decision was made to leave the island.

Fortunately, Reyes-Rodriguez had a niece in Florida. And she had two friends and former coworkers who had shared her love of the NICU at El Presby Hospital in San Juan. Aida Flores, R.N., and Mara Gonzalez had both moved to Florida before the storm and accepted nursing positions in the NICU at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. They also had kept in touch with Reyes-Rodriguez through social media. When they heard of her plight, they drove to Bradenton, where she was staying, and comforted her. Then, they did more. They put in a good word for her and her nursing skills at Johns Hopkins All Children’s.

“I knew she had come to Bradenton and it’s always good to get to work with a friend and coworker again so I recommended Candida to the hospital,” recalls Flores, whose own family was in Puerto Rico for the storm. She understands the fear and devastation that the island, and its residents suffered.

Reyes-Rodriguez’s history working in a NICU in Puerto Rico, along with recommendations from her coworkers got her quickly hired at Johns Hopkins All Children’s, which she loves. “I just thank God and Johns Hopkins All Children’s that I have a job I love and that my family is here and they are safe,” Candida says with a weary smile. “I love working with babies, and I’m so glad to be in a NICU again. We miss Puerto Rico and will go back to visit, but we are very happy with the opportunity we have here.”

Reyes-Rodriguez, who spoke almost no English, is learning quickly and her coworkers are all helping and showing great patience with her. “They don’t laugh at me,” she jokes.

Reyes-Rodriguez’s kids, who loved playing in the wreckage after the storm and even enjoyed viewing the stars at night with no electricity, love their new apartment and school in Bradenton and are settling in nicely near family until they save enough to purchase a home. Reyes-Rodriguez’s husband was able to transfer his job to Florida and her mother has joined them. They are grateful to the niece who gave them shelter upon their arrival and have nothing but good things to say about the hospital.

In fact, since she received such a great recommendation from her own friends Flores and Gonzalez, Reyes-Rodriguez is now telling a few of their fellow nurses who remain in Puerto Rico that she knows of a wonderful place to work in sunny Florida …

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