Mírame: Global Institute Joins Puerto Rican Doctor and Rapper to Provide Medical Support

Dr. Samantha Gonzalez speaks with a patient in Puerto Rico
Article Details
  • Dr. Samantha Gonzalez and members of the Global Institute are providing medical outreach to rural areas of Puerto Rico.
  • She’s working with Dr. PJ Vazquez Bragan, medical director for the Puerto Rican section of Direct Relief and a popular rapper and health advocate.
  • The team develops health care plans for people in need who live in remote areas and don’t have access to consistent medical care.

Inside her home on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra, a patient in her 60s told a visiting doctor she had a bad fall several weeks ago. She had leg pain and needs an X-ray, but there’s no hospital on her island.

Getting an X-ray would involve rising before dawn to take a ferry to the main island and waiting in a long queue for medical care. Her biggest worry wasn’t the tiring journey but finding a substitute caregiver to look after her middle-aged son who has paraplegia.

The doctor, Samantha Gonzalez, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, listened to the mother while a fellow physician talks to the son about concerns with his wheelchair. Dr. Gonzalez conducted this house call as part of a new initiative for the Miller School’s Global Institute for Community Health and Development.

Focus on Rural Areas

The Global Institute team, with support from the AshBritt Foundation, is focusing on helping rural, isolated areas in Puerto Rico, like Culebra, that are particularly vulnerable to hurricanes, earthquakes and climate-related stressors.  

“These natural disasters get them all the time, and they can really set communities back in terms of their overall health and development,” Dr. Gonzalez said.

As long as we can keep getting organizations together—like University of Miami and Direct Relief—I think we can make a big difference.
— PJ Vazquez Bragan, also known as PJ Sin Suela

Dr. Gonzalez, who also serves as assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics and a senior advisor on child health for the Global Institute, first visited the island of Culebra more than a decade ago when she was a medical student at the Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico. She rode the hour-long ferry over to explore Culebra’s famous Flamenco Beach, known for its untouched beauty.

The remote location makes the island a treasured vacation destination. But when Dr. Gonzalez returned in March 2024 with the Global Institute, she saw how Culebra’s status as “an island of an island” can make daily life challenging for residents, including the aging mother and son.

On her visit to their home, Dr. Gonzalez was joined by Elizabeth Greig, M.D., co-director of the Global Institute and assistant professor of medicine at the Miller School, and PJ Vazquez Bragan, M.D., medical director for the Puerto Rican section of Direct Relief, a nonprofit that delivers humanitarian medical aid worldwide. Dr. Gonzalez has been a friend of Dr. Vazquez’s family since medical school and they both share a passion for community health.

The Importance of Community

Dr. Vazquez is popular for his medical outreach as well as his music artistry under the stage name PJ Sin Suela.

“He is so loved by the community in Puerto Rico not just because of his music, which speaks to the impact of community and advocates for social justice, but also because of his commitment to the people of Puerto Rico when they need it most,” Dr. Gonzalez said.

Dr. Samantha Gonzalez and Dr. Elizabeth Greig in rural Puerto Rico, speaking with a man wtih a red backpack
The Global Institute’s Dr. Samantha Gonzalez (center) and Dr. Elizabeth Greig with Dr. PJ Vazquez Bragan in Puerto Rico.

Dr. Vazquez, who has been profiled in Rolling Stone magazine, said patient stories often inspire his lyrics. “I have a song called Mírame, which means ‘look at me,’” Dr. Vazquez explained. “It talks about the importance of community.”

Community aid was essential for the mother and son patients. Dr. Vazquez learned that the son became paraplegic after a gunshot wound. He’s dependent on his mother for basic needs. Neighbors help them out by sharing meals. Last year the community helped them install a generator to keep their power on during storms—and even on sunny days when the island’s feeble electrical grid cuts out unexpectedly.

Before leaving the home, Dr. Vazquez, Dr. Gonzalez and Dr. Greig drew up an action plan to get a new wheelchair for the son and hire a caregiver so his mother can travel to the main island for her own health needs.

Dr. Gonzalez said the Global Institute plans to continue collaborating with Direct Relief, local academic institutions and other partners to further address health needs on the island. During their March trip, they also met with medical school leadership from Universidad Central del Caribe to begin the process of creating a needs assessment for Puerto Rico as a whole. The Institute has broader plans to offer disaster response training for local providers and further engage local leadership.

“The goal is for us to better understand these smaller communities and their needs and then support training for people who are local to promote their resilience in the setting of disasters,” Dr. Gonzalez said. 

Dr. Vazquez is looking forward to continuing to team up.

“As long as we can keep getting organizations together—like University of Miami and Direct Relief—I think we can make a big difference,” he said.

Tags: disaster response, Dr. Elizabeth Greig, Dr. Samantha Gonzalez, Global Institute for Community Health and Development