What I saw after Hurricane Ian as a veterinarian in a pop-up clinic – blog. humanesociety. org
By Dr . Katherine Polak
In the weeks after Hurricane Ian devasted communities across Florida, our team coordinated the creation of a distribution center for pet food and a pop-up vet clinic offering free vet services in a regional library parking lot in Port Charlotte, Florida. Dr . Katherine Polak, the vice president of Companion Animals and Engagement for Humane Society International, who coincidentally is also a Florida-licensed veterinarian, made the trip to help establish a pop-up clinic, to meet the particular demand for veterinary services while local vet clinics were closed. In this guest blog, Dr . Polak tells us what it was like to deliver much-needed care to this community.
When I arrived in Florida two weeks after Hurricane Ian, I didn’t know what to expect. I had thought that so many days after the storm that the demand for solutions might be winding down. This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Hurricane Ian devastated communities across Southwest Florida, affecting both people and animals alike. To help support pet owners during this crisis, the Humane Society of the United States launched a pet food distribution initiative, stationed out of the library parking lot in Port Charlotte. The team distributed desperately needed dog food and supplies for dogs, cats, chickens, hamsters, rabbits, and more at no cost. The need was astonishing: More than 500 cars passed through each day to pick up supplies.
As people were passing through the distribution center, our Animal Rescue Team learned that providing supplies only skimmed the surface of what people needed for their animals. Many people told our team that their animals were sick, injured plus unable to reach a vet. Most veterinary clinics in the area had been severely damaged and were closed indefinitely. Provided the damage to homes in the region, many people were also living in tents and in their vehicles with their pets, many of whom were suffering from untreated illnesses, flea infestations and severe matting.
Given the dramatic need for veterinary providers, the idea of establishing a pop-up vet clinic next to the food submission point was born, so that the local community could access basic veterinary care. Because I am a veterinarian licensed to practice in the state, I was in an ideal position to help rally local veterinary support, procure materials and medications and get our own clinic up and running. When I arrived, the first step was getting an actual clinic set-up. This consisted primarily of multiple tents equipped with basic veterinary products. After a couple of calls to county officials explaining the plan, a text message was sent to residents advertising free veterinary care.
Almost immediately after the text message went out to the community about our pop-up vet clinic, we were overwhelmed with people bringing in their sick and injured animals. By 8: 30 the. m. every morning there was a line forming within the parking lot of pet owners desperate to have their animals seen by a veterinarian. We decided to ramp up our capacity, putting out an urgent call for help (vets, technicians and supplies) across the state to meet the demand. Luckily, the particular Florida Veterinary Medical Association responded, quickly assembling a roster of vets plus technicians eager to help.
We were initially limited in our medication and supply resources, but we wanted to do more. These people and their creatures endured so much. We wanted them to have access to not only basic veterinary care for their pets, but the absolute best care possible. For many people, their pets were all they had left .
After a bit of a hustle, i was operational. We had coolers full of donated medicines and vaccines, a makeshift pharmacy and a preventive care station that happily provided the public with tick and flea preventive for their animals. The cases of animals presenting to the clinic varied dramatically: Some cats had stress-induced urinary conditions and fractures. We saw a bunny who refused to eat, a dog who was rescued after nearly drowning in a pool, an orphaned baby squirrel, a chicken with a fractured wing. You name it, our pop-up vet clinic saw it. On the second day of operation, we welcomed more than 240 patients.
Many people were living out of their own cars and tents with their animals after their homes had been destroyed. One woman arrived at the clinic in her minivan: Inside had been her eight cats and two dogs, all living together in the vehicle. She wanted the animals to get treated for fleas and get their shots. And while some of the cases we saw were hurricane-related (lacerations, broken bones), a lot were also instances where these animals hadn’t seen a vet in a long time, if ever. Because of socioeconomic barriers and lack of access to services, this was their very first opportunity for their beloved pets to get care.
There was a huge demand for fundamental veterinary care, such as administering vaccines and doing nail trims, and we were happy to provide those services while veterinary clinics in the area remained closed. Some people were eager to get their animals groomed. While grooming isn’t routinely considered part of disaster medicine, many of these pets were now living in unsanitary environments as homes were flooded. We were able to do clip-and-cleans, towards the best of our ability, along with little electricity and no running water. Not only was it important for the animals, but it also gave owners peace-of-mind that their particular animals would stay healthy, plus hopefully set that animal up for a lifetime of continued veterinary care.
The clinic also provided a place for lost pets to be reunited with their owners. On one of the last days we were there, a woman that had already visited our own clinic with her own canines returned carrying a sweet Yorkie she found running loose on the highway. She immediately scooped up this lost dog and brought her to us. Even though the Yorkie had matted fur and was covered in dirt and burrs, she had a rabies tag and a collar: We knew she a new family somewhere, so we hustled to post photos of the dog on lost pet social media sites. Within hours, she was reunited with the girl owner, who had been looking for her since she escaped during the storm.
Now I have returned from helping with the Hurricane Ian response, yet my mind is still filled with the hundreds of people and animals I met. In under one week, we treated more than 881 patients, and provided thousands more with flea, tick and heartworm precautionary to keep them healthy until regular veterinary services resume. As I reflect on the entire experience, I can’t help but think about how preventive-type veterinary care after a disaster like Hurricane Ian is equally as important as offering urgent treatment, particularly when pets are living in such close quarters with their individuals. Disasters like Hurricane Ian also reveal the lack of entry to affordable veterinary care that will already existed in many communities. This is why initiatives that provide access to care for underserved communities like our Pets for Life program and Rural Animal Veterinary Services are so important. Our pop-up clinic clients had been literally leaving in happy tears, so thankful that we were able to get their animals help, and vaccinate their animals, which they had never been able to afford before.
In many cases, when people have lost everything, these pets are the only family they have left. Providing for this community truly took a team effort. The Florida Veterinary Medical Association, the Tampa Bay veterinary community, Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County and Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue, to name a few, were instrumental in making this happen. Thanks to their support, the animals in Charlotte Region received top-notch care from Florida’s best veterinarians. It was truly one of the most treasured experiences of my life to have had the opportunity to help this community associated with families and their domestic pets in their time of need.
You can support lifesaving efforts like this by donating to our Emergency Pet Relief Fund , which ensures that our team can continue to answer the call during times of emergency wherever, whenever and however animals need us.
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