Event reunites formerly critically ill patients with UF veterinary teams involved in their recovery

By Sarah Carey

Dr. Adesola Odunayo welcomes the group who attended the college's first-ever Celebration of Life event on Aug. 12 prior to presenting an overview of each animal's medical situation and how it was treated.

Dr. Adesola Odunayo welcomes the group who attended the college’s first-ever Celebration of Life event on Aug. 12.

About a dozen former patients of the University of Florida Small Animal Hospital — dogs who had once been critically ill and had spent extended periods in the hospital’s intensive care unit — returned to UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine on Aug.12 with their families for a celebration of life gathering that proved emotional and inspiring for all who came.

Planned and implemented by Dr. Adesola Odunayo, a clinical associate professor of emergency and critical care at the college and the Michael Schaer Professor of Small Animal Medicine and Critical Care Medicine, the event lasted over an hour and was an opportunity to reconnect the patients and their owners with the veterinarians and technicians who were part of their care teams.

Suki's owners makes her way down the steps as she greets members of her care team.

Brandi and Chris Hrebenak, Suki’s owners, make their way down the steps as Suki stops to greet members of her care team. Giving her a hug is Casandra Blair, a veterinary technician who works in the small animal hospital ICU.

Some of the participating families and their pets drove hundreds of miles to be present. It was the first time such an event has ever been held at the college, and those involved say they hope it can become a tradition in the future.

“We had ‘Celebration of Life’ events like these at places where I previously worked, and they were always so meaningful,” Odunayo said. “For those of us who work with pets when they are very sick, it can be very difficult, as not all of the pets we see survive to have positive outcomes. With almost all of these patients, at some point we’d be talking about the possibility of euthanasia. Veterinary professionals who work in that setting can question their sense of purpose.”

To see these animals now recovered and healthy was rejuvenating for the doctors and technicians who cared for them, Odunayo said.

The event began with a PowerPoint presentation highlighting the cases of each dog present, with information about the disease the pet experienced and how it was treated. The clinicians associated with each case stepped up to the podium to present about their cases.

Jodey Eliseo owns Lorenzo, a puppy who turns 1 year old in September and was one of the dogs represented. She said the event was full of heartwarming stories of survival.

Wednesday Studivant with her family and Dr. Brittany Fraser.

Wednesday, a female pit bull,  with her family and Dr. Brittany Fraser. Wednesday was successfully treated for baclofen toxicity.

“It also drives home just how hard everyone at UF worked to save our critically ill babies, and how much they care,” Eliseo said.

Lorenzo’s story included being rushed from an Ocala veterinary clinic to UF on June 23, 2023 — septic, with an extremely high fever and leaking from a perforated intestine.

“His chance of survival was poor and I was beyond terrified,” she said.

After UF’s team stabilized Lorenzo’s blood pressure, surgery was performed to remove a metal shard that had been left inside his body and to fix the perforation. Although Lorenzo survived the procedure, he wasn’t waking up from anesthesia, so brain impairment was a possibility.

“He finally woke up, brain intact, but was on two kidney-killing medications for his low blood pressure,” Eliseo said. Lorenzo rallied, but infection, belly fluid and antibiotic resistance followed. Then Lorenzo had a blood transfusion, endured another surgery, heart scans and pneumonia before finally improving with a change to his antibiotic medication and time in the ICU’s oxygen chamber to heal his wound.

Lorenzo, a sheepdog/standard poodle mix, with his owner, Jodey Eliseo, and a member of his care team.

Lorenzo, a sheepdog/standard poodle mix, was treated for sepsis and other issues. He’s shown with his owner, Jodey Eliseo, and Dr. Katherine Hedges.

“After 17 days, he was able to come home,” Eliseo said. “Dr. Hedges, Dr. Hair, Dr. Ehrhardt and all involved with Lorenzo’s care are remarkable doctors and human beings. I cannot thank them enough. I wasn’t going to give up on my boy and they went above and beyond to give this ordeal a happy ending.”

Eliseo also had special thanks for all of the technicians who were with Lorenzo almost 24/7 or called in to check on him when they weren’t.

“Lorenzo behaves like nothing ever happened,” Eliseo said. “However, I cannot say the same! I am still watching over him like a hawk, and probably will be for the remainder of our lives.”

Barbara Reeder came with her dog, Cloud, a 7-year-old English cream golden retriever. Reeder said Cloud has always been a healthy girl with some skin allergy issues and an occasional urinary tract infection. In October 2022, she and her husband were traveling and they received word from Cloud’s caretaker that Cloud was not eating and had vomited, so she took Cloud to the Reeders’ normal veterinarian. That veterinarian performed tests that indicated Cloud’s kidneys appeared to have failed.

“The vet called us and recommended that we put her down, as she would be unable to recover,” Reeder said. “We instead stated that we would come home immediately and asked if they could stabilize her.”

A veterinary technician greets Barbara Reeder and her dog, Cloud, an English cream golden retriever.

Dr. Sean McRae greets Barbara Reeder and her dog, Cloud, an English cream golden retriever.

Cloud subsequently was taken to the UF Pet Emergency Treatment Service in Ocala, where she was put on an IV to flush her kidneys. As soon as the Reeders arrived back in Ocala, they picked Cloud up and drove her to the UF Small Animal Hospital emergency service.

“The doctor we met with at that time explained that Cloud was in dire condition, but said they had experienced some success with aggressive treatments,” Reeder said. “They also told us that even in the best of situations, we should expect that her life would be compromised.”

The Reeders left Cloud in UF’s care and went home. Cloud would remain in UF’s ICU for over a week. Dr. Lauren Bracchi became Cloud’s primary doctor “and was wonderful in providing updates and putting together a complete treatment program for Cloud,” Reeder said.

Tests revealed that in addition to her kidney failure, Cloud had an E. coli infection that was antibiotic-resistant. Although multiple treatment options were discussed, including dialysis, the family concluded with her doctors that “staying the course” was probably the best approach.

Although Bracchi had suggested a permanent feeding tube, the Reeders were determined to get her to eat. They were given 12 different medications that needed to be administered, including the twice-daily E. coli injections. They checked in with their local veterinarians, who again informed them that Cloud’s numbers were too high to recover from and that they should consider euthanasia.

“However, we had faith in Cloud’s spirit and in the support of Dr. Bracchi,” Reeder said, adding that the next week they began feeding Cloud anything she would eat.

“It turns out she likes scrambled eggs, bacon and toast for breakfast, and filet mignon with a loaded baked potato for dinner,” Reeder said.

She took Cloud back to UF for a recheck, and doctors said she looked good but they were still waiting on test results. This process continued for a few weeks. A call from Dr. Bracchi relayed that Cloud’s kidney values had dropped and her E. coli infection was gone … but they were asked to continue the treatments, just to be sure. And there was one other issue: Cloud’s cholesterol had skyrocketed, and the Reeders were asked to return her to a normal diet. They did, and she ate normally. Subsequent tests revealed that the E. coli infection was completely gone and Cloud’s cholesterol had returned to normal levels.

“Miraculously, her kidney levels were down to 1.5. Our baby was back to normal and will live a complete and full life. We are so grateful for Dr. Bracchi and the hospital team who kept faith with us instead of losing hope in Cloud,” she said.

Dr. Taylor Curley with Neal Almond, holding his dog, Luke, a liver-colored English springer spaniel, who received care at UF for botulism toxicity. On leash is Luke's "girlfriend," Sassy.

Dr. Taylor Curley with Neal Almond, holding his dog, Luke, a liver-colored English springer spaniel, who received care at UF for botulism toxicity. On leash is Luke’s companion, Sassy.

Britny Chunn, an emergency/ICU certified veterinary technician who worked with six of the patients present said that being with these animals during their worst times and then seeing them months to years later was both rewarding and fulfilling.

“I was one of the fortunate ones to have spent many hours and likely shed many tears over these patients we were lucky enough to celebrate during this event,” she said. “Working in the emergency and critical care setting, we often see so many patients who are only hospitalized for a few days, but many of those celebrated were there for many days to many weeks. As technicians, we are there during the good, the bad and the scary moments. What makes it all worth it is getting to see them be discharged back to their families, who were many times told ‘it’s not looking very good.’”

“Getting to see patients like Suki, Luke and Jackson, who was unable to attend, be discharged after being so sick they were unable to lift their heads, now walking, wagging their tails and giving kisses brought me so much joy and is truly the reason I became a veterinary nurse,” she said.

Odunayo said one moving highlight of the event for her was the story of Dexter Nesbitt, a dog who was hospitalized for a leptospirosis infection of his kidneys. Dexter received dialysis in UF’s ICU for over a month, then developed endocarditis. Although he later developed cancer and passed away, his owner, Aubrey Nesbitt, felt it was important to attend.

“This is the first time I’ve organized a ‘celebration of life’ event where we had the pet represented by the owner,” Odunayo said. “But his owner really wanted to be present.”

Dr. Taylor Curley, an emergency and critical care resident, was Dexter’s doctor, and gave an overview of what he overcame. Dexter’s owner also spoke and expressed her gratitude to the UF team.

“I am appreciative of everybody who attended the event and contributed to making it meaningful,” Odunayo said. “This also extends to all the team members who could not make it — doctors, students, technicians, customer service representatives and other staff members. It really does take a village, and I am proud to work with such an incredible group of dedicated individuals.”

Editor’s note: A story about Luke Almond’s experience at UF can be found here. A story about Suki’s experience at UF can be found here

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