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Uncharted waters

The veterinary community saved pets and people when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas.

Uncharted waters
An emergency shelter was established at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. Veterinarians volunteered their time to tend to evacuees’ pets.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the central coast of Texas on Aug. 25 and worked its way through Houston and southeast Texas, destroying homes and businesses along the way and disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and their pets. Veterinarians were heavily impacted as well, both personally and professionally.

Here are stories about Hurricane Harvey from the perspective of the veterinary professionals who lived through it.

Business Owners

Dr. Scott Driever and his family camped out on the second floor of his Sugar Land, Texas, veterinary clinic.

Be prepared, the Boy Scout motto, never rang truer for Scott Driever, DVM, an assistant scoutmaster and the owner of Animal Hospital Highway 6 in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. After watching floodwaters rise near their home, he and his family packed camping gear and headed to the clinic, where they rode out the storm in the confined space of the second floor. His kids, both involved in Scouts, treated the stay as another camping experience. While Dr. Driever’s practice did not take on water, the massive flooding across Houston left his staff concerned about when the hospital would reopen. In the end, it was closed only two days. Dr. Driever texted clients to alert them to the reopening. They responded by picking up supplies and hanging around to chat as a sense of personal connection was renewed.

Anxiety about lost pay was a concern of the staff at Village Veterinary Clinic, co-owned in Houston by Sam Miller Jr., DVM, and Seth Landry, DVM. Many hourly employees lost three to four days of wages because of flooding at home or because they couldn’t drive to work. The clinic did not flood, but Dr. Miller’s home took on significant water. He and Dr. Landry decided to pay everyone in full. “With the magnitude of this disaster and the uncertain future, this will no doubt have the potential to affect the mental health of our employees, and job security is the one thing I can do to help relieve this anxiety,” Dr. Miller said.

Dr. Mark Purser, right, helped rescue three German shepherds that had been abandoned in crates amid rising floodwaters. Dr. Purser is lead veterinarian at Highland Knolls Veterinary Hospital in Katy, Texas, and chief of staff for the Katy Area Veterinary Medical Group.

Memorial Cat Hospital joined the National Veterinary Associates family a couple of years ago. Staff veterinarian Bill Folger, DVM, MS, DABVP, said the corporate structure brought peace of mind to NVA teams affected by the hurricane. Business interruption and flood insurance policies typically do not cover payroll losses, but NVA’s employee compensation coverage protects staff when a practice closes for several days because of such a disaster.

Mark Purser, DVM, owns the Katy Area Veterinary Medical Group, west of Houston. His house remained dry, but he couldn’t get home for over a week after he used a kayak to evacuate neighbors and their pets. While his clinics did not flood, the water came close. Dr. Purser witnessed wonderful acts of kindness and a horrible act of cruelty. A Katy resident abandoned his house, a Bentley, a Rolls-Royce and three German shepherds. The dogs were left inside crates in the yard and when found had only 6 inches of air space. Dr. Purser took in the dogs and reported the case to the Houston SPCA’s Cruelty Investigation Department.

The Associates

Memorial Town and Country Animal Clinic in Houston did not flood as Harvey rained down, but the clinic took on water released from Addicks Reservoir. The practice closed so that the staff, including associate veterinarian April Inman, DVM, could perform remediation work. Dr. Inman’s employer retained his core hourly staff and agreed to pay them for time lost. He was considering inverse condemnation funds and a Small Business Association loan to pay for reconstruction. Another clinic, Stuebner Airline Veterinary Clinic in Spring, Texas, started a GoFundMe page. Dr. Inman volunteered to care for displaced pets at a major shelter in Houston. Since she carries student loans, she took on relief and emergency shifts at other clinics to make up for lost production.

Aaron Rainer, DVM, MPH, the president-elect of the Texas Veterinary Medical Association and an associate at Kingsland Boulevard Animal Clinic in Katy, survived the initial floodwaters and then evacuated his home after concerns were raised that the Brazos River would overflow its banks. Kingsland had never closed for business in its 40-year history, but then Harvey arrived and the clinic shut down a few days for the safety of the staff and their families.

Many associate veterinarians are paid based on the invoices they write. Dr. Rainer’s thinking about this system has changed. “A natural disaster like Harvey has made me reconsider the modern-day production-based pay model,” he said. “It may be outdated, or at least lacking the consideration of intangible factors. Associate veterinarians paid on production lost money they would have normally earned at their day job. While the clinics were closed, these veterinarians gave of their time voluntarily, helping pets at evacuee shelters, sometimes working more hours than they would at their regular job. The goodwill that social media earned the associates’ clinics through their hours of volunteerism will undoubtedly increase the bottom line of the practices. Intangibles and what an employee brings to the job should be considered.”

Dedicated Staff Members

The view from Meyerland Animal Clinic in Houston was of a flooded street. Two staff members stayed for four nights to care for the animals left behind.

Clinic owners across Houston had to decide whether their hospitals would close and what would happen to the animals within. Some clients were told to pick up their pets. Other hospitals set up makeshift homes for the staff members who stayed behind. Two employees spent four nights at Meyerland Animal Clinic in Houston. Deb Pitsch, CVA, has been with the practice for over 30 years and camped out during previous hurricanes. This time was different because Pitsch is undergoing chemotherapy for multiple myeloma. Still, she wanted to help, and when she briefly went home after the third night she found a foot of water inside. She returned to Meyerland for a fourth night to sleep on an air mattress, care for the animals and keep watch on the water level.

One Health at Work

Though he lives more than 300 miles away in Fort Worth, Texas, Dr. Steve Hotchkiss transported his airboat to Port Arthur, Texas, where the craft was used to evacuate residents from a flooded nursing home.

Far to the north, in Fort Worth, Steve Hotchkiss, DVM, the owner of Hulen Hills Animal Hospital, watched with increasing concern the news about Hurricane Harvey. He has family in Houston, and his wife grew up in southeast Texas. As the devastation became more obvious, Dr. Hotchkiss could not remain still. He loaded his airboat and headed into the storm. Working with the U.S. Coast Guard in Port Arthur, Texas, he got a call to go to a nursing home where residents had been sitting in their wheelchairs in waist-deep water for over 12 hours. Dr. Hotchkiss was overcome by what he saw. “As veterinarians, we fight for the helpless animals,” he said. “It was the same emotion [seeing helpless] people. The news can’t portray the size and amount of destruction that impacted the Texas coast.”

The nursing home patients had to be taken somewhere. Ken Rutty, DVM, the owner of Rutty Animal Clinic in Port Arthur, did not hesitate to open his doors. Over 40 patients landed at his clinic, where he provided dry towels, blankets, bandages and other supplies. Shortly after the boats finished offloading the infirm, helicopters arrived to evacuate them. The air blast from the Chinook helicopters knocked some shingles off the roof — Rutty Animal Clinic’s only damage.

A Dramatic Year

Brittany King, DVM, an associate at Montrose Veterinary Clinic in Houston, is no stranger to adversity. This past March, clinic owner Dr. Valerie McDaniel committed suicide after being accused in a murder-for-hire plot. Several staff members quit, so Dr. King put in long hours to cover the workload. She could not get to the clinic for several days after Harvey struck, but the remaining staff kept the practice going. Once Dr. King returned, she noticed that the conversation had shifted. Clients were discussing Hurricane Harvey more frequently and spending less time ruminating about Dr. McDaniel. Harvey, Dr. King said, may provide a chance for healing and an opportunity to move forward.

A Wild Time

The doctors and staff at Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists are known nationwide as the stars of the TV show “Animal ER” on Nat Geo Wild. The main hospital in Houston suffered catastrophic flooding, and all the equipment and supplies were lost. A satellite facility that houses neurology services became the temporary base for emergency and critical care and diagnostic imaging. More than 40 referring practices offered temporary space. Gulf Coast last year became part of the Compassion-First Pet Hospitals network. The parent company agreed to continue all pay and benefits for salaried and hourly staff as the practice recovers. The goal is to not lose one employee because of Hurricane Harvey. As surgeon Wayne Whitney, DVM, DACVS, told his staff: “Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists is not a building, it’s you, the people who work here. We will be back, bigger and better and stronger, and you are part of that. We are a family.”

Dr. Lori Teller practices at Meyerland Animal Clinic in Houston.

Never underestimate organized veterinary medicine

While the government takes the lead in any major disaster, volunteers frequently recognize needs and fill in gaps. The Texas Veterinary Medical Association serves as a link among veterinarians, animal responders and state agencies.

Following Hurricane Harvey, the TVMA, the Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation and the Houston SPCA joined together for Operation Reunite, an effort to return displaced animals to their owners. The animals were to be fostered for 45 days and restored to health while the owners got settled. Unclaimed animals were to be offered for adoption.

Dr. Amy Vogt repaired a dog’s broken leg in the aftermath of Harvey. Above, an X-ray shows the injury.

Meanwhile, the Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation raised over $300,000 for disaster relief. The Walter J. Ernst Veterinary Medical Foundation, associated with the Louisiana VMA, donated $100,000.

Renee Poirrier, DVM, who owns Acadiana Veterinary Clinic in Lafayette, Louisiana, and heads the Louisiana VMA’s emergency management committee, explained the out-of-state donation.

“Twelve years ago, Texas, especially Houston, stepped up to the plate to help us,” Dr. Poirrier said, alluding to Hurricane Katrina. “We want to help in any way we can.”

Amy Vogt, DVM, DABVP, who owns Friendship Animal Hospital in Richmond, Texas, requested assistance. She applied for a Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation grant to cover the cost of treating a Hurricane Harvey survivor: a dog diagnosed with a broken leg. The owners lost their home and could not afford orthopedic surgery.

Emily Gaugh, DVM, MPH, president of the Harris County VMA, offered this insight: “We are no longer a community of ‘my client or ‘your patient,’ but a community of veterinary medicine offering help to relieve the suffering of animals. We will need to keep this mentality strong as we finish out the year.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association’s charitable foundation provided disaster-relief grants to veterinarians.

“The AVMA stands with our colleagues ready to assist in any way possible,” said President Michael Topper, DVM. “Because we are in constant contact with government agencies as well as state and local associations, we can provide up-to-date resources to ensure an immediate and helpful response.”