A battle with lung cancer, the destruction of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and a 1,700-mile trip from Anguilla to New Jersey – traveled part of the way on a U.S. military cargo plane – has not slowed down 87-year-old Audrey Rogers.
“So far, I’m good,” Ms. Rogers said Wednesday from a relative’s home in New Jersey, where she ended up. “I feel blessed really. I’m very grateful. If I hadn’t gotten out on that military plane, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Ms. Rogers, a member of the Order of the British Empire and lifelong resident of the British territory of Anguilla, found herself in serious trouble earlier this month as a 180-mph Hurricane Irma bore down on the eastern Caribbean. Ms. Rogers, who is the mother-in-law of Cayman’s deputy ombudsman Jan Liebaers, had no way to get to the U.S. Virgin Islands to receive her regularly scheduled cancer treatment and no way to get off her home island.
“I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes, but none like this,” said Ms. Rogers, who received the MBE for her efforts to improve education in her community. “This is the worst I’ve ever experienced [speaking of Hurricane Irma]. During the night, it sounded like the house was going to come apart.”
In the Cayman Islands, Ms. Rogers’s daughter, Renee Liebaers, and her husband Jan, were starting to worry about Renee’s mother. They had not heard directly from her in the immediate aftermath of Irma, and although the Cayman Islands government was sending the first of its aid aircraft to its sister territory at that point, Mr. Liebaers said they could not get in touch with Ms. Rogers in enough time to get her on the Cayman Airways plane.
Ms. Liebaers said time was against them. Her mother needed to maintain the cancer treatments every three weeks and that was not going to be possible any longer in the Caribbean.
“The treatment center she was going to in St. Thomas [in the U.S. Virgin Islands] was destroyed in Irma,” Renee said. “We had to get her out of there. The best solution was for her to go back to New Jersey.”
New Jersey is where Ms. Rogers’s brother, 82-year-old Cedric Rogers lives. Getting her there proved to be an adventure. Ms. Rogers and some of her relatives had heard of U.S. military aircraft landing in Anguilla to deliver emergency storm relief supplies, but she missed the first U.S. cargo flight, which arrived a few days after the Cayman Airways plane. Based largely on a rumor that another U.S. plane was coming, Ms. Rogers stayed at the airport, asking the U.S. airmen to pick her up on the next flight. After several hours, the second plane arrived.
“There were just a few seats on the side, up against the [aircraft] wall,” Ms. Rogers said. “There was a lot of space in the middle, and that’s where most of the people sat, just on the airplane floor.” She estimates 15-20 Anguillians made the cargo plane flight over to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where they were placed in a 6,000-bed hurricane shelter set up for eastern Caribbean evacuees.
“There were people from all over the Caribbean there,” Ms. Rogers said. “I must say, it was wonderful, immaculately clean. They brought me dinner, offered me clothes and shoes, but I didn’t need any of [the clothes]. They offered me to stay in a hotel, but I was just tired and said I was fine there.”
In the morning, another problem arose. Hurricane Maria, another Category 5 monster storm, was nearing Puerto Rico, where many of the eastern Caribbean evacuees fled in the wake of Irma.
Luckily, she was able to get a U.S. commercial flight to New Jersey the same day – about three days before Maria’s arrival, which devastated the entire island.
Arriving in New Jersey, Ms. Rogers was surprised to find her brother had gone on vacation. However, the family made arrangements for her to stay with another relative in the area until Mr. Rogers’s return. In the meantime, she was able to attend the Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Center in Somerset, N.J., and received a preliminary assessment from doctors on Wednesday.
Ms. Liebaers and Ms. Rogers agree that her lung cancer condition worsened because she had gone six weeks without any treatment as a result of the storms. However, Ms. Rogers is hopeful that the U.S. doctors can get her back on track. She hopes she can return to Anguilla as soon as possible.
“My house doesn’t have any major damage,” she said. “I’ve lost a few coconut trees.”
Reflecting on the whole ordeal, Ms. Rogers is quite positive. “That’s life,” she said. “I’m 87 years old. I’ve had a good life. I’ve enjoyed good health. My lung cancer came on me in January and I was shocked because I’ve never been sick. But I’m still very grateful. It’s fine if I make it to 89, that’s longer than most people get.”