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Dr Higgins Goes Home

By Julie Vargo, Editorial Contributor

Growing up in the Bahamas, Jonathan Higgins saw his share of strong hurricanes — from Andrew in 1992 to Charley, Frances and Jeanne in 2004. But those storms didn’t compare in ferocity to Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm, as it ripped through the northern Bahamas in early September, leaving 70,000 people without food or shelter and reducing buildings to rubble.

Soon after Dorian departed the Bahamas, Dr. Higgins, a vascular surgeon at Orlando Health Heart Institute, arrived. He boarded a small plane in Orlando loaded with medicine, supplies and volunteers, and flew in to help his homeland.

“I have never seen such destruction as I saw flying into Treasure Cay in Abaco Islands,” says Dr. Higgins, who grew up in Nassau, the island nation’s capital. Although he moved to the United States in 2006, the surgeon still has family living in the Bahamas and regularly volunteers there.

Flying in, Dr. Higgins could see hundreds of people waiting amid the wreckage of the airport to get on one of the planes trying to land. Armed security guards coordinated the crowds. Relief workers unloaded supplies and hauled debris.

A Desperate Situation

“Everything, the whole landscape, was brown and burnt out,” he says. “Palm trees were uprooted, their trunks snapped in half. Buildings were completely blown out, walls and roofs gone.”

But in the true spirit of the Bahamas, people were still smiling. “Bahamians are perpetual optimists and very resilient — even when the situation seems desperate,” says Dr. Higgins. “I saw people smiling, despite having lost everything.”

To conserve gas as they left the airport, the team drove with the air conditioning off and car windows down. “A half-mile down the road, the smell hit us,” says Dr. Higgins. “It was putrid. The sewage system was overflowing, and we knew people were still missing. It was the smell of death. “

During his 30-hour visit, Dr. Higgins saw patients and distributed medical supplies. “We brought antibiotics, bandages, cleansing wipes, medications for high blood pressure and diabetes — anything that didn’t require refrigeration,” says the surgeon, who also treated dozens of wounds and bruises suffered from flying debris.

Stories of Survival

Dr. Higgins was inspired by the spirit of his countrymen and their tales of survival. The team’s translator was standing in his house when the roof blew off during the middle of the storm.

“He told me he had an overwhelming urge to move quickly to another house across the way,” says Dr. Higgins. “He ran through that hurricane to reach the other house. When he got there and turned around, he watched as his own house collapsed onto where he had been standing only moments before.”

Another man was a sailor who could read the wind. Calculating the hurricane wind’s direction, he weathered the storm in his truck by sandwiching the vehicle between two storage units. The wind blew over him. He knew the wind would shift directions when the eye of the hurricane passed, so he moved his car to the other side of the units … and survived.

“Seeing the destruction and hearing the stories put things into perspective,” says Dr. Higgins. “It’s important to be grateful in the moment and treasure people, mindful of those we work with, those we love. You can always buy more things or rebuild a house.”

Return Trip

What can people do in the wake of Dorian to help the country rebuild? “Go on vacation to the Bahamas,” says Dr. Higgins. “It is still a tourist destination, and Atlantis, Bimini and other tourist spots are open for business. Supporting the local economy will help the Bahamas rebuild.”

Rebuilding will take time, and Dr. Higgins is afraid people will forget about his homeland’s needs. “With our 24-hour news cycle mentality, it’s easy to forget there are still needs — and will be for quite a while,” he says.

Dr. Higgins remains active in Dorian relief efforts, and plans to take additional donations of medical supplies and medicine from Orlando Health to the islands in February. He also returned to the Bahamas in late December to assist. “Relief workers are usually on the ground for 90 days and then they leave,” says Dr. Higgins. “We were going back in at just the right time to help again.”

To Help Dorian Survivors

Since its founding in 1992, Heart to Heart International has been a first responder to natural disasters all over the world, and currently has a medical team and mobile medical unit in the Bahamas. With its focus on medical relief, Heart to Heart is a good fit with Orlando Health’s mission and is listed on Charity Navigator as a high-scoring organization (97.72/100). To make a donation, go to HeartToHeart.org.

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