Juan Carlos Rodriguez can still hear the winds that ripped apart his school campus. The hunger from food rationing remains fresh as does the fear of machete-armed gangs roaming nearby while he and others huddled and waited for help.
It all seems like a movie to him as he pores over photos and videos from the past two weeks. But he wasn’t starring in this drama; he was living it.
Lifetime in a backpack
Hurricane Maria took almost everything from Rodriguez save for what he could fit into a backpack: the medical school he attended on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica and his family’s home in Puerto Rico. But he vows it won’t take his future — indeed, it has helped him find it.
From his uncle’s house in Homestead, Florida, Rodriguez calls his experience surviving Maria “life-decisive.” In an interview by phone, he told CNN it has pushed him to pursue a new career path in his final semester at Ross University School of Medicine — emergency medicine.
It was a decision born in the midst of a crisis.
The first person he rescued
Hours of pleading with campus security finally paid off.
With Hurricane Maria’s eye 30 minutes away from landfall on Dominica on September 18, Rodriguez persuaded security to allow another student — someone he’d never met — to bring his dog into the student center shelter at Ross University.
Rodriguez and two security officers ventured out in a pickup truck to rescue the student and dog from an apartment. As they drove back toward campus, trees snapped across the roadway, while heavy winds rocked the vehicle.
The student was the first person Rodriguez would help rescue during the following eight days of hell. He wouldn’t be the only one.
Walking back to that apartment less than 24 hours later, Rodriguez and the student scrambled over trees completely covering the same road. They climbed the steps to the third-floor apartment, only to find what could have been a death trap for the student. Nothing was left but destruction.
Doctors of tomorrow
Their homes in ruin after the storm, students, faculty and staff trickled onto the Ross University campus near Portsmouth while searching for shelter, food and water.
“Most of the students’ places were completely totaled,” Rodriguez told CNN. “Everybody had to go to campus regardless.”
A backup generator provided welcome solace for many, but a lack of water severely affected the ability to keep conditions sanitary at the student center.
Rodriguez and about 50 other students quickly jumped into action and transformed what little of the campus functioned into a working shelter. Organizing into groups, they tackled the tasks they needed to survive.
Some began cleaning the horrifyingly unsanitary bathrooms in the student center, while others cooked the one daily meal they could ration to the nearly 1,000 people Rodriguez estimated took refuge there.
“Everybody that picked up the ball did so in such a way you saw the kind of physicians that they were going to be,” Rodriguez said. “People that … I would feel very comfortable putting my life into their hands. … It’s not something you learn in the books. It’s something that you have or don’t have. Period.”
Subsisting mostly on almonds and Vienna sausages, Rodriguez was among an ad hoc group that patrolled the south side of campus to keep looters away. He didn’t sleep for the first two days after the storm.
“We just had the flashlights,” he said. “The orders were: You do not engage. All we were trying to do was to deter them with the flashlights.”
Rodriguez avoids using the term “looters.”
“They were as desperate as we were,” he said, shrugging.
A phone call to Ohio
Gathering around a satellite phone during a break in their work, Rodriguez and other students from Puerto Rico snuck out after the mandatory curfew. Desperate for any word from their families back home, they dialed every number they could remember for word on relatives or friends.
None of the students could get through to Puerto Rico.
But Rodriguez was lucky; he was able to reach his sister in Ohio, and she passed on news from their mother in Levittown, Puerto Rico. Everyone was alive, but everything had been destroyed.
He gave her every single phone number that all the Puerto Rican students had for their families back home.
“You will not stop calling them until you can let them know that these kids are safe,” he recalls telling her.
A past left behind
Four days after the storm, evacuations began, with refugees ferried by boat off Dominica to St. Lucia, where they awaited flights to the United States.
The core volunteers and faculty remained on campus until the last ferry took them to St. Lucia. Space and weight being a premium, evacuees were allowed to leave with one 40-pound backpack or suitcase. Everything else had to stay.
Packing his medical supplies, laptop, a red felt notebook and a change of clothes, Rodriguez left everything behind, giving his landlord all his clothes.
Eight days after Maria’s landfall — and weighing 10 pounds less than before the storm — Rodriguez left Dominica, his home for two years. For the first time in what felt like an eternity, he felt relief once the wheels of a chartered plane left the ground in St. Lucia.
And he felt safe.
There’s nothing to go back to in Puerto Rico; his family is trying to evacuate to the US mainland.
Before the hurricane, his focus in school had been on gastrointestinal medicine, a passion of his ever since he shadowed a GI physician in Puerto Rico.
But no more — it’s emergency medicine for him or bust.
“I would like to do this for the rest of my life,” Rodriguez said, “to help people out in these situations. That’s my thing.”
He’s steadfast in how profound his experience during the hurricane was. It woke something up deep inside him.
“I can’t really explain,” he said. “It’s one of those things — out-of-body experiences. I just did what I had to do. My body went into autopilot mode. Because that’s the type of person that I grew up to be. We serve people. We want to help.”
At some point, Rodriguez will take out the red felt notebook — his life journal — that he salvaged from his ruined apartment in Dominica and packed safely into the backpack that now holds everything he owns.
“I write to myself in that notebook,” he says, chuckling again. “When I’m old, (I’ll) … see all the s— I went through in life.”