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Dr. Cesar Sierra with palettes of medical supplies

Featured Article

Hurricane Maria: An Untold Story

How a Plastic Surgeon from Westport Silently Saved Lives

Dr. Cesar Sierra and I sat in his tidy, chic Westport office to discuss his practice. Dr. Sierra is an award-winning surgeon specializing in cosmetic eyelid and facial plastic surgery. He also offers facial rejuvenation procedures and fillers and is the first doctor in Connecticut to offer Emsculpt, a muscle-toning procedure that, as a gym-weary and sometimes impatient individual, piqued my curiosity.

But then he mentioned Hurricane Maria. When pressed, he told me an extraordinary story but was reluctant to let me write it.

“I didn’t do it to promote myself,” he explains. “I wanted to help.”

He finally agreed to let Westport Lifestyle tell his story. We are honored to publish it now.

For Dr. Sierra, a native of Puerto Rico, the story began a week before Hurricane Maria with Hurricane Irma. From Sept. 5-7, 2017, Irma pummeled the Virgin Islands islands off the Puerto Rican coast. Gov. Roselló declared them disaster areas.

On Sept. 8, Irma left and the weather stabilized. Unknown to many in the U.S., wealthy, civic-minded Puerto Ricans quietly began rescue efforts for their neighbors. They sailed their yachts and flew their private planes to the Virgin Islands, sending fresh water and supplies to the beleaguered residents. Then they brought back sick and wounded residents to Puerto Rico for medical help. Dr. Sierra proudly posted on Facebook: “We saw how on their own family, friends and friends of friends carried supplies in their private boats. We also saw them return with the most vulnerable.”

For 12 days, yachts and planes brought supplies to the islands and rescued their wounded inhabitants. Then, on Sept. 20, with hospitals full of Irma casualties, Hurricane Maria catastrophically struck Puerto Rico, sinking yachts and destroying planes en route to the islands.

Maria killed and wounded thousands while decimating the island’s infrastructure. It was Armageddon. Collapsed poles with piles of tangled electrical wires clogged the streets, making communication and travel nearly impossible. For several harrowing days, Dr. Sierra lost contact with family and friends. He frantically called doctors he knew in the area; none responded. Then, slowly, calls trickled in. No one had good news. Doctors described their ICUs as “dead fields,” patients dying in their beds due to the scarcity of medicine and supplies.

Dr. Sierra dove into action. On Sept. 23, he hurriedly posted to Facebook: “Just after hurricane Irma trashed most of ‘the islands’… we saw thousands of images of help and stories of generosity of the Puerto Rican people…. Because this is how Puerto Ricans are—selfless! Well, today is the day when all Puerto Ricans in exile have to do what needs to be done. Today! Now! Not tomorrow! Get in! Step up to the plate!”

He knew he needed to yell louder for his rallying cry to make an impact. Dr. Sierra contacted Dr. Marietta Gomez, a fellow Yale doctor and Puerto Rican friend. Using Facebook, they tried to network for necessities. Yet networking was slow and couldn’t outpace death. Desperate, Dr. Sierra posted his cell phone number and a plea for help. Minutes later, his phone began ringing. And ringing. Within several days, the two amassed an astonishing 55,000 pounds of donations from hospitals and drug companies.

An impressive feat—but how to get it to Puerto Rico? They followed up on a United Airlines contact who offered to deliver the supplies in their first cargo flight to Puerto Rico. But there was another catch: the goods had to be gathered and delivered to JFK within two hours.

Dr. Sierra immediately posted: “Sept. 25: I need a contact/connection with someone who can ship 1000-plus pounds of medical supplies and medicine … Does anyone have any direct contact with the governors of PR, NY or CT, or anyone else who could help ship this from New York, New Jersey, Hartford or Boston?”

Drs. Sierra and Gomez pursued numerous leads, from relatives of political figures to transportation employees, arranging for trucks to haul all 55,000 pounds to the airport with minutes to spare.

Later on Sept. 25, Dr. Sierra posted: “Finally, after two days of being on the phone with a large number of people that I don't even remember, we got the first plane with medical materials and medicine… Thank you, but don't stop. We'll need more!!!!”

The United cargo plane departed and landed in Puerto Rico hours later. But the entire commonwealth was in chaos, including the airport. Security was diminished, as police struggled to rescue victims, clear streets and, sadly, thwart plundering. No one was available to deliver the supplies, and they were stuck in the airport. So Dr. Sierra, Dr. Gomez and a group at Yale spent hours calling every doctor they knew in Puerto Rico. Soon, doctors, nurses and residents drove to the airport, packed their cars and slowly navigated the obstructed streets to bring the supplies to the few accessible hospitals.

For two weeks, Dr. Sierra closed his medical practice to manage donations and transportation to Puerto Rico. News of their success spread quickly. Within three to four days of the first delivery, an enormous group of Yale medical staff and Connecticut residents joined the effort, which orchestrated the collection, delivery and dispersal of 2 to 3million pounds of medicine, medical equipment and industrial generators.

Once the ports opened and traffic began to flow, Drs. Gomez and Sierra returned to their medical practices. Dr. Sierra continued to help Puerto Rico, coordinating the arrival of victims in peril to U.S. hospitals via private aircraft. Today, he continues to volunteer in third world countries. Hopefully, someday we’ll write about that as well.

"Well, today is the day when all Puerto Ricans in exile have to do what needs to be done. Today! Now! Not tomorrow! Get in! Step up to the plate!”

  • Dr. Cesar Sierra
  • Dr. Cesar Sierra enjoying a favorite publication
  • Loading trucks with medical supplies
  • Dr. Cesar Sierra with palettes of medical supplies
  • Dr. Sierra arranged for a private jet to bring this child from Puerto Rico to Philadelphia for treatment.