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MASON CITY | A Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa registered nurse has returned from Puerto Rico with a grateful heart.

Bryan Williams, chief flight nurse at Mercy, assisted with the federal health response to Hurricane Maria in November — nearly two months after the Caribbean island was struck by natural disaster.

“Puerto Rico is probably the most rewarding (mission) I’ve done,” he said. “The people were just so appreciative.”

Williams, a 23-year employee of Mercy including 12 in his current position, has served as a member of the Disaster Medical Assistance Team, commonly known as DMAT, since 2005.

The Disaster Medical Assistance Team is part of the National Disaster Medical System, a federal program that supports communities with medical care and mortuary assistance during disasters or public health emergencies at the request of states. The program is among the resources made available by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

In early November, Williams, and more than 30 others, were deployed to Fajardo, Puerto Rico, which is about an hour east of San Juan, to reduce the strain on local hospitals by providing medical care to residents affected by the hurricane.

“I probably had four or five people whose appreciativeness, thankfulness was one of those that just about brings you to tears because they were so thankful that we were there to help them out,” he said.

During the response, National Disaster Medical System personnel, along with U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps officers, provided care to more than 32,100 residents affected by the storm.

Williams said his team provided care to about 120 patients a day during the 12-hour period its camp was open.

“It was smoking busy. We were cooking throughout the day,” he said.

The team, which comprised of physicians, nurses, paramedics, fatality management professionals and experienced command and control staff primarily from the Midwest, provided medical care at a camp comprised of tents for treatment, triage and pharmacy for residents.

Williams said the team most commonly treated “general respiratory illnesses” caused by mold as a result of the wet and warm conditions after the storm as well as other conditions seen “working in a normal (emergency room).”

The National Disaster Medical System consists of about 5,000 medical public health and emergency management professionals, organized into more than 70 response teams.

Williams, and National Disaster Medical System personnel, respond to national and international disasters when they overwhelm local and state resources to assist with the response.

He returned to Mason City before Thanksgiving when medical facilities and hospitals in Puerto Rico were prepared to accept patients.

Williams said his experiences on his mission to Puerto Rico — similar to the one he had in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina — will stick with him for years.

“(A takeaway for me) was just how good we really have it and that we can definitely be more appreciative of what we have because that’s what I saw from the people there,” he said.

According to a press release from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Health and Human Services’ personnel deployed to the U.S. Virgins Islands and Puerto Rico provided life-saving care, helped stabilize health care systems, including suppliers and regulated industries in the territories, and restored services to meet residents' needs with a focus on services for people with chronic health conditions.

Williams said he assisted with the federal medical response after Hurricane Katrina and Fargo, North Dakota, flooding, as a member of DMAT, and he credited his team at Mercy for supporting his service.

“I’m fortunate to have a team that’s amazing,” he said. “My team’s awesome.”

Reach Reporter Ashley Stewart at 641-421-0533. Follow her on Twitter at GGastewart.

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