CCU student recognized for MS awareness efforts in Puerto Rico
Thanks to the work of Coastal Carolina University sophomore Vilmarie Ocasio, many Puerto Ricans are better able to understand, get treatment for and survive multiple sclerosis (MS) and cancer.
After years of false diagnoses and deteriorating health, Ocasio’s mother, Vilma Espada, was finally diagnosed with MS in 2014. The family was living then in their hometown of Manati, Puerto Rico, where information about the disease was difficult to access.
Vilmarie Ocasio (second from right) with her mother, Vilma Espada (right) in San Juan as Senate Bill 1180 becomes signed into law.
Frustrated by the inadequacy of medical care and its effect on her mother’s condition, Ocasio was determined to do something about it. In 2015, she began researching the disease herself and decided to develop an awareness campaign as a Girl Scout project.
“My mission was to orient doctors in Puerto Rico about MS and how to assist patients and the general public,” she said. “I started doing more research about what else I could do to help people in Puerto Rico with MS. I saw that there was a bill [pending] in the Senate in Puerto Rico.”
Senate Bill 1180 proposed to create a required registry of people diagnosed with MS in Puerto Rico, and she immediately became an advocate for it. At just 16 years old, she caught the attention of legislators by emailing, calling, personally lobbying at the Senate office in San Juan, and meeting with former Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla. The bill passed unanimously and became Law 85 on July 22, 2016, creating the first required registry for MS in the world and making it easier for scientists and doctors to receive federal funding for research and treatment.
In 2017, Ocasio created a nonprofit called Community Organization of Multiple Sclerosis and Cancer (COMSC), which distributes information and coordinates lectures for students, hospital administrators, doctors, MS patients and the general public in Puerto Rico.
Ocasio moved to the United States with her mother and brother after Hurricane Maria left 80 percent of the island with no power or running water in Fall 2017. She transferred to CCU for the spring semester in 2018 and is now a communication major with a minor in public health.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico, Ocasio sent portable air conditioners to 30 MS patients suffering from the high heat—purchased with donations to COMSC’s Facebook page. And after Hurricane Florence hit the Myrtle Beach area, she donated water, towels, diapers, soap and other hygiene items to CCU during its donations drive.
Vilmarie Ocasio (center) was presented the Rising Young Latina
Award from the Association of Latino Professionals for America.
Ocasio won the 2018 Rising Young Latina Award from the Association of Latino Professionals for America, spoke at its annual conference at Columbia University, and was awarded a scholarship. Other awards she has received in recognition of her efforts include the Girl Scouts National Young Women of Distinction Award, the Daily Point of Light Award and the Diana Award from a Scottish nonprofit that recognizes young people who have made a significant impact in their local community.
“It started off small and it became huge,” said Ocasio. “It takes time and effort, but it’s not impossible [to make a difference].”