Puerto Rican Man Almost Died

By: SYRA ORTIZ-BLANES
The Miami Herald April 16, 2021

A Puerto Rican man almost died in an explosion. Now, he faces a nearly $2 million debt.


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SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO For 23-year-old Alexis Hernández, leaving Puerto Rico in January 2019 to study medicine in Mexico was the culmination of a lifelong dream. For as long as he can remember, the young man from the coastal town of Camuy aspired to be a doctor.

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“I always felt a call to serve others,” he said. “And medicine has a big impact on the quality of life of people.”

Hernández arrived at Guadalajara, the ornate capital of the western state of Jalisco, to familiarize himself with the city and prepare for the academic year. Other students from the island were living in his building and also attending the university, so he quickly felt like part of a community.

But hours before his first classes began, Hernández almost died in an explosion that left him with second and third-degree burns over 70% of his body, and a medical debt of nearly $2 million that he said has even made him question whether he should have survived. Now he is waging a campaign with the help of Puerto Rican lawmakers to get his debt canceled. In his new apartment, after saying farewell to his parents, Hernández turned on the water boiler to take a shower. The heating system blew up, engulfing him and his apartment in a violent blaze.

“The pain I felt was indescribable,” he wrote on his Facebook page, where he regularly chronicles his recuperation. “I don’t know how, but I said that everything would be fine (I was not wrong). I wanted to turn off that pain, even if it cost me my life.”

Doctors managed to stabilize Hernández at a Mexican hospital and then transferred him to the U.S. Army’s Institute of Surgical Research, a military facility in San Antonio, Texas, that specializes in treating burn victims. Hernández spent 20 days in a coma and about two months in the intensive care unit. He then began the rehabilitation process to learn how to live independently again.

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“The burns were so painful that I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do anything. I had to relearn how to do everything,” he told the Miami Herald. Even his daily routine of taking showers and getting dressings changed was torturous, he said. Some of his days at the facility were so busy with procedures, tests, and therapy, he said, that he would rise from bed at 6 a.m. and go to sleep at 2 am.

But Hernández was undeterred. He did not lose his sight, as doctors feared he would. He underwent 19 surgeries and learned how to walk and eat again. Other young burn victims at the hospital, further along in the rehabilitation process than he was, kept his hope afloat. “In them, I saw an example that I would be able to overcome this,” he said.

After about seven months, Hernández was discharged and returned home to Puerto Rico. He had left the island a healthy 20-something in pursuit of his passion and came back in fragile health. Family and friends greeted him at the airport with Puerto Rican flags, posters, balloons, even live music.

“When I arrived, it seemed like all of Puerto Rico had come,” he said. “I had fought so hard to leave the hospital and come home. To see them so happy and to share that with them was beautiful.”

Hernández began medical treatment on the island and settled into a new routine. But a surprise letter from the U.S. government arrived at his Camuy home, stating that the burn survivor owed over $1 million to the federal government for his treatment. Hernández reached out to First Medical, his insurance company. The firm replied that they had an analyst handling his case, he told the Herald.

“I called the insurance company in tears, asking for an answer because they didn’t say anything,” he said. “That’s when they gave me an appointment with the vice president, who was with a lawyer. He said that they were sorry but that they couldn’t pay the bill.” First Medical denied him coverage on the grounds that the accident had taken place in Mexico, Hernández said. Meanwhile, medical expenses incurred in Mexico were paid through donations.

For the burn survivor, the experience was revelatory of the complexities and challenges of the American healthcare system.

“Finding yourself in an economic situation that makes you question will it be worth surviving or not is very sad. I feel so full of life, so hopeful, and this situation has been terrible,” he said. Hernández turned to social media to advocate for himself and bring attention to his situation. “Governor, what can be done in my case to stop insurance abuse?” he wrote in a post last summer, addressing then Gov. Wanda Vázquez. “First Medical, the largest provider of health services for government employees, led me to believe that it would cover the bill for the hospital.”

Some Washington officials have spoken up on his behalf. Rep. Jenniffer González, the island’s sole representative in Congress, recently wrote President Joe Biden after a CBS News report aired about Hernández’s plight.

“I respectfully request you consider pardoning the expenses incurred by Alexis in this horrific accident,” she wrote.

Nydia Velázquez, the first Puerto Rican woman in Congress, wrote to Janet Yellen, the secretary of the Department of Treasury, asking the agency to consider Hernández’s request for his debt to be forgiven.

In response to a June 2020 letter from González, an army official said that the Department of Justice was the “proper authority for resolution,” because of the large size of the debt. According to the reply, the hospital was working to facilitate any information he could use to submit a request to cancel the debt.

The Department of Defense and the Department of Treasury did not immediately return a request for comment. The insurance company declined to comment, citing patient privacy policies.

The debt, which stands at over $1.7 million as of June 2020, currently remains unresolved. Hernández, now 25, said that the emotional distress caused by his sky-high medical bills has affected his recovery. But despite his medical and economic troubles, Hernández remains focused on healing, calling the date of the explosion “his anniversary of being alive.”

“I was born again,” he said, “And that’s why I decided to celebrate that day. I always will.” He visits multiple medical specialists and attends physical therapy several times a week. He has a prosthesis on his hands for his fingers. In September, Hernández was able to tie his shoes again, which he called “another test passed.”

“His positivism, his faith in God, is moving,” said Idalysa Morales, a physical therapist who has been working with Hernández since September 2019. “I feel that I am working with a miracle of God.”

Since they began working together, his improvement has been “significant,” she said. He can sit straight up without tumbling backward and has become more independent at home. He can walk farther distances and has better balance and coordination. Sometimes the grief over his debt can affect his concentration.

One day, the former medical student hopes to return to school and study medicine again. “I can now see the pain that patients feel, the problems they face every day, being in a bed, being dependent on others,” he said. “That gives me more tools to be a better doctor.”

Syra Ortiz-Blanes is a Puerto Rican journalist who covers Puerto Rico and Latin America for El Nuevo Herald and Miami Herald through Report for America. She graduated with a master’s degree from the Columbia Journalism School in May 2020. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and others.

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