UF VETS team deploys to Fort Myers in aftermath of Hurricane Ian

UF Vets Team 10/3/2022

Members of the UF Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service team gathered for a photo prior to departing for Fort Myers on October 3.

By Sarah Carey

At the request of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ agricultural response team, the UF Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service deployed to Fort Myers on October 3 and remained for 10 days, treating 422 animals in need of care in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

It was the UF VETS team’s largest deployment since the group’s inception in 2003.

Based at the Terry Park Sports Complex in Lee County, the UF  team performed health assessments and triaged animals in need of care. While most of the animals seen were dogs and cats, the team also cared for a rabbit, a couple of bearded dragons one goat needing a blood transfusion.

Dr. Maxwell and Jojo

Jojo the cat came to the field hospital for supportive care and treatment for suspected upper respiratory tract infection. She came for four consecutive days and was finally cleared to stay home.

Many of the animals seen had gastrointestinal or dermatological issues related to or exacerbated by the storm, or stress associated with the storm and its aftereffects. Some trauma patients were seen as well, including a dog treated for alligator bite wounds. Several kittens that had been found after the storm were brought in for assessments by area residents who hoped to adopt or find homes for them.

Pet food and supplies were donated by several organizations and individuals. Zoetis provided two volunteer technicians, along with blood analysis machines and medications to support enhanced diagnostics and treatments in the field hospital.

After the group returned to Gainesville, the team’s medical director, Dr. Larry Garcia, sent an email thanking faculty, house officers, veterinary technicians, veterinary students and support personnel who made the mission a success.

“For those of you who stayed behind, we thank you for your extra efforts in filling our absences,” he said.

Five veterinarians, seven veterinary technicians, three veterinary students and six support personnel participated in the team from UF. Additionally, the Florida Veterinary Medical Association and the Florida Veterinary Technicians Association provided 16 volunteer veterinarians and 20 volunteer veterinary technicians from around the state in order to expand the team’s bandwidth and help them meet the needs of the Ft. Myers community. Overall, 60 volunteers assisted in the effort, representing Lee County Domestic Animal Services, the UF Small Animal Hospital and the UF Veterinary Hospital at World Equestrian Center.

“Though it can be hard to find bright spots in such difficult times, we are honored our longstanding partnership with the University of Florida allowed us to provide support to Floridians and their animals in a time of need,” said FVMA’s executive director, Jim Naugle.

He noted that the FVMA and the college have been partners for much of their history, with the FVMA most recently providing scholarships to UF veterinary students and volunteer opportunities at its small animal and equine conferences.

Dr. Garcia with cat

Dr. Larry Garcia, UF VETS’ medical director, holds a kitten brought to the field hospital.

“It was truly an honor to work alongside such an amazing group of people,” Garcia said.

The state’s agricultural law enforcement office provided additional support to the UF team during their entire stay in the area. Six officers provided security, helped with pet food distribution and assisted members of the public in locating resources, said Brandi Phillips, a UF VETS team member who serves as the group’s animal technical rescue branch director.

“This is the second time our team has had agricultural law enforcement join us for deployment, the first being Hurricane Irma, and this partnership is an incredible asset as we serve communities affected by disasters,” she said.

Phillips added that one key element the group saw everywhere was a strong spirit of helpfulness and gratitude.

“The community members were filled with gratitude, and several people stopped in without pets in need of care, simply to thank our team for being there for Southwest Florida,” she said. “After listening to the stories of survival through the storm and hearing the ongoing hardships from so many facing incredible loss, it was extremely gratifying to be able to provide much needed care to their four-legged family members. The peace of mind that we were able to give them in ensuring the health of their beloved pets was a welcome relief amidst an otherwise overwhelming experience.”

Dr. Gareth Buckley

Dr. Gareth Buckley, chief medical officer for the UF Veterinary Hospitals, and Alexis Cooper, a veterinary oncology technician at UF, with one of their patients.

Dr. Elizabeth Maxwell, a clinical assistant professor of surgical oncology, spent a week with the group and said she valued not only the experience helping local communities affected by Hurricane Ian, but also the opportunity to work closely with veterinarians and veterinary technicians from all across the state.

“The devastation was unimaginable, and many of the people who came to us for veterinary care had lost everything,” she said. “It was an unforgettable experience and I’m so glad that the UF VETS team is here to provide veterinary care for Florida in times of disaster.”

Another team member, Dr. Heather McKechnie, a small animal intern, noted that the deployment was far more than providing medical care for the animals effected by Hurricane Ian; it was about supporting the families and individuals who have experienced catastrophic loss.

“The stories they told were almost dystopian,” she said. “Yet somehow, they still had such gratitude, kindness and appreciation for our help. When all else was lost, many still had their furry loved ones, and held on to the hope that brings. In essence, this mission was the pinnacle of veterinary medicine — fostering the human-animal bond, at a time when it was needed more than ever.”

McKechnie added that as a young veterinarian, working with extremely limited supplies challenged her to “think outside the box.”

“I didn’t have access to diagnostics or many medications that would have been helpful, and as a team, we would come up with a way that we could still do something to empirically help the patient, and in turn provide some comfort for their family, too.”

Second-year veterinary student Jordan Sullivan, another team member who works part-time in the UF Small Animal Hospital’s emergency room, echoed these thoughts. At UF, she said she is constantly surrounded by the “gold standard” of medicine, so it was hard for her to understand how doctors were treating animals during the first few days at the field hospital with almost no diagnostic tools, limited medications and a less-than-perfect exam room.

“I learned a lot about how to work with limited resources in the face of a disaster and how to provide the best care possible to patients, no matter where you are,” Sullivan said, adding that what she would remember most about the trip was the feeling she had each day.

“I had the privilege of being a part of a wonderful and caring team of veterinary staff and saw how our presence in the Fort Myers community made a difference in the lives of so many families,” Sullivan said. “This was a beautiful reminder to me of why I want to be a veterinarian in the first place.”

A bunk trailer provided to the college in 2019 through a grant from PetSmart Charities and the Banfield Foundation was used to house team members during their stay in Fort Myers. Four additional trucks were driven down to provide supplies and food to support the effort.

Several posts updating the public on the team’s relief efforts were made on the college’s Facebook page. Additional information about the UF VETS team relief efforts and the team’s overall can be found on the UF VETS webpage and on its Facebook page.

Anyone who wishes to contribute to UF VETS’ current and future efforts can do so at this link: at https://bit.ly/3e103f3.


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