Russell Rawcliffe, shown when he served as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, recently used some of those skills to help Fresenius Medical Care patients in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. CONTRIBUTED

Holiday Heroes: Former Army pilot goes back to his roots to save lives in Puerto Rico

Russell Rawcliffe picked up only a little bit of Spanish his first time in Puerto Rico, but the place left an impression on his mind decades later when he heard about a powerful hurricane ravaging the island.

He lived there for three years as the child of a military family stationed at Fort Buchanan, and later achieved fluency in Spanish while serving a two-year Mormon mission in Argentina. Rawcliffe, 37, also served in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot and is now settled in Paulding County as a financial analyst for Fresenius Medical Care.

The company operates 28 kidney dialysis clinics in Puerto Rico, which were greatly threatened by Hurricane Maria this fall. Rawcliffe knew the patients needed his aviation, military and logistics skills more than his financial talents, and sprung into action to help.

“I was humbled by the opportunity to go down there and help,” he said simply.

RELATED: Sticking around after Hurricane Maria blew through Puerto Rico

Rawcliffe spent more than a week helping to coordinate delivery of medical supplies to Fresenius’ Puerto Rico facilities, which included finding planes to deliver phones, fuel, food and water along with medical needs. The father of four left his family behind in Atlanta to aid patients at the dialysis clinics, helping them receive the care they needed to stay alive.

Fresenius operates 28 facilities in Puerto Rico, of which 26 were back up and running right after the hurricane. The other two needed significant repairs.

“The hurricane hit on a Wednesday,” Rawcliffe said. “I was brought in on a Friday. Monday morning I headed out of the Miami airport for Puerto Rico.”

Cellphone coverage was spotty. Images of pain and destruction that most saw only through a television screen he experienced in person. Just getting diesel fuel to generators at the Fresenius facilities proved to be an enormous challenge. Water could be hard to find at times too, and gas lines sometimes stretched a mile long.

But the ever-humble Rawcliffe was focused only on the mission at hand to make sure his company’s patients received what they needed. He says he was impressed most of all by his fellow employees in Puerto Rico.

“They nearly lost everything and then showed up to dialyze patients,” he said. “I couldn’t be any more proud.” 

HOLIDAY HEROES

This is the first installment of Holiday Heroes, a seasonal AJC series that focuses on philanthropic efforts of local Atlantans. Each story captures the charitable impact meant to change communities for the greater good. To read more of the series, visit myAJC.com/living.

The former AJC reporter has been there for a week doing disaster response.

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