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CVMBS Veterinarian Finds Hope in the Tragedy of Hurricane Katrina
Much of the country has moved on since Hurricane Katrina hit in early September. But for Dr. Reneé Dewell, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Clinical Sciences, the disaster continues to occupy a place in her heart and soul. So many images, captured like photographs, left an indelible mark on her mind. There was the church that had been ripped from its foundation and sent to parts unknown – but the church’s steeple sat perfectly square on the foundation as if designed as a minimalist rectory. There was the horse caught in the high branches of a tree, swept up by rising waters before drowning and coming to rest on a leafy pyre. House after house after house was simply gone. Whole communities were destroyed. Everywhere, rising from the destruction, were the stories -- some with tragic endings but, amidst the suffering, some joyful ones, too.
Dr. Dewell deployed to Hattiesburg, Miss., on Sept. 12 as part of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Veterinary Medical Assistance Team (VMAT) in a response to a request from Dr. Jim Watson, Mississippi State Veterinarian. During her 15-day stay, she was stationed at Camp Shelby where her team, VMAT-3, provided veterinary medical care at the Hattiesburg temporary animal shelter; provided much needed supplies to the operational veterinary facilities in the affected area; assisted severely damaged veterinary facilities with clean-up, staffing, and supplies; and had a Strike Team in Waveland, Miss., that provided triage and transport of animals back to the Hattiesburg shelter. The team also assisted in pre-sale health assessments for ranchers who could no longer afford to feed and care for their livestock, or who couldn’t rebuild fencing.
Animals at the shelter came from many search and rescue organizations, from individuals, and from Strike Team activities. The shelter housed rabbits, dogs, cats, poultry, pigs, goats and horses ranging in age from 2 weeks to more than 40 years old. Many were severely traumatized, many suffered from puncture wounds, and most had been separated from their owners.
“The first thing we would do when receiving an animal was decontaminate them,” said Dr. Dewell. “I was a little bit worried about doing this with the cats, but they were already so traumatized they barely moved. Then the Humane Society was charged with processing the animals, providing a tracking number and a kennel the animal would call home for a while.
“I took the lead on our large animal cases and am especially proud of the biosecurity program we put in place to protect the animals and provide the highest quality of care we could. We also wanted to protect people coming through the facilities. We were especially concerned that the horses could transmit a zoonotic disease, like salmonella, to a person. At the shelter, we were able to do blood work, surgeries, treat many cases of trauma, and stabilize the more seriously injured animals before transporting them for more intensive veterinary care in a relatively clean environment.”
Dr. Dewell has so many stories from her experiences, but two in particular stand out. On her last case, she went out to the country to provide care to a horse that had been hit by a telephone pole.
“It was obvious that the horse had suffered pretty extreme neurological damage and I had to euthanize him,” said Dr. Dewell. “It was so traumatic for the owners. After everything they had lost, they now had to lose their only horse, too. A few hours later, after I’d gotten back to the Hattiesburg facility, I saw them coming toward me at the shelter. I didn’t know what to expect. It was such a trying time, and people’s emotions and behaviors were so unpredictable. But they had driven all that way just to thank me. It was that kind of grace and dignity and strength that touched me so much.”
Dr. Dewell also relays the story of a horse named Tabasco. Tabasco’s owners put most of their horses out in the pasture before the storm hit, thinking they would be the safest there. For some reason, they left Tabasco in the barn. As the waters rose, the owners retreated to the roof of their house while Tabasco swam and swam around the barn. Though battered by debris, bruised and cut, Tabasco managed to stay afloat for countless hours.
“This horse has an amazing spirit and was determined to survive,” said Dr. Dewell. “When he was rescued and brought to our facility for treatment, he was so cut up we hardly knew where to start. But he was one of the lucky ones who made it. Tabasco’s family did not recover their other horses so he is somewhat of a hero to his family.”
Dr. Dewell said what really captured her heart amidst all the tragedy was the power of the human-animal bond.
“I was fortunate to see some very happy reunions,” said Dr. Dewell. “People who had lost so much would come to the shelter and find their dog, and the smiles and tears and hugs were almost overwhelming. It’s hard to explain the emotions that came up for them and how much finding their companion raised their hopes and spirits.”
Dr. Dewell said her experiences during her two-week stay in Mississippi affected her profoundly and she is proud that she had the opportunity to serve during such a critical time.
“Those people gave me so much more than I gave them, it was just an honor to be there,” said Dr. Dewell. “Also, I couldn’t have been there without the support of the College and Dr. Mo Salman, and I really appreciate the chance they have given me to serve with VMAT.”
For her future plans, Dr. Dewell plans to continue with VMAT and will soon be attending additional training sessions dealing with biological agents. She doesn’t look forward to the next disaster, but is prepared to do her part as best as she can when the time comes.