CIDRA, PUERTO RICO
The trio of workers on the relief mission drove through the mountains to deliver supplies to the destitute in a rural region ravaged by Hurricane Maria.
But they weren’t delivering fuel, ice or hot meals.
Instead, the workers, from an organization called El Punto en la Montaña (The Mountain Point), brought packets of clean syringes, mounds of antibacterial wipes and rolls of gauze from a dwindling supply. In the wake of the storm, their goal is to keep opioid users — Puerto Rico has a long-running addiction crisis — free from deadly diseases they could get from injecting drugs. Toward that aim, the trio even brought tiny disposal aluminum cups — clean ones — that are commonly used to cook heroin to shoot up.
Oliver Franco Rivero, a longtime drug user, slowly wheeled himself into the classroom of an abandoned school to meet the El Punto workers. Users gather in the building day and night, despite the missing walls and hundreds of used syringes littering the ground.
At 34, Rivero has already lost his left leg to diabetes. His body is covered in ulcers from countless injections over nearly two decades. Tucked between his fingers was a syringe, its brownish liquid a mix of water, heroin and cocaine — un speedball, on the streets.
“It’s been so hard,” Rivero said, slurring, when asked about conditions after Hurricane Maria, which struck the island Sept. 20. “I have no money. I have to beg.”
Moments later, as fellow users were collecting used needles from the trash-strewn floor to be given to El Punto for disposal, Franco slowly pierced the skin of his left hand, just above the knuckle of his middle finger. The process was slow and unsettling — the needle would not cleanly enter his vein. Drops of bright red blood rolled down his fingers and splashed on the foot rest of his wheelchair.
The toll of Hurricane Maria has added another layer of misery for the tens of thousands of opioid users who dwell in Puerto Rico’s underbelly — and for the small number of dedicated groups who try to help them get clean, stay safe and emerge from the shadows.
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