Out of disaster, humanity emerges

Stories of veterinarians impacted by Hurricane Irma

September 22, 2017 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

VIN News screen shot
Dr. Robert Prošek posted an emotional video to supporters who've donated to a GoFundMe page started on his behalf. "It's really appreciated," he said. "We're doing the best we can. We're going to drop off some food right now, and also some antibiotics and go see some patients, and then back to cleanup duty and deliveries and animals we have to see today. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. It will not be forgotten, that's for sure."

Dr. Robert Prošek and his dog huddled in a closet as winds and water decimated the neighborhood surrounding his Key Largo home.

The 45-year-old veterinary cardiologist had been too busy to evacuate, caring for patients who were migrating north with their owners, before Hurricane Irma made landfall on Sept. 11. It was America's second major hurricane in 15 days, following Hurricane Harvey's strike on Texas.

Twenty-four hours before the Category 4 hurricane hit Florida, Prošek made a frenzied attempt to secure his boat and home, stuffing the windowless closet off his bathroom with supplies to last a few days. Prošek, who practices in several locations throughout South Florida, had recently invested in an ambulance fully outfitted with digital X-ray, fluoroscopy equipment and a CT scanner. Parked on the side of his home, he didn't want to lose it.

"I didn't think I was going to die," Prošek said. "But I was hoping that all I had worked for wouldn't be destroyed. I was thinking, 'If this ship goes down, I'm going to go down with it.' "

A longtime resident of South Florida, Prošek and his family have faced many powerful hurricanes. When Hurricane Andrew struck Homestead in 1992, Prošek's father, also a veterinarian, and uncle used their feet to brace the practice's doors and safeguard the 160 or so animals boarding there.

"That was before their were emergency animal shelters," Prošek said. "People left their animals with their veterinarians."

As the storm passed, Prošek emerged to find the neighborhood a wreck but his property, for the most part, intact. With his phone still charged and a signal, he posted to Instagram a photo of an American flag anchored in vegetation, recalling the now-famous image of the flag hoisted atop a mountain of rubble that once was the World Trade Towers. Coincidentally, the date was 9/11, the 16th anniversary of the largest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

On social media, Prošek wrote: "I am alive and not ok but here, and I have ambulance full of medical supplies. I can't do surgery, but almost anything else I can help with. ... The American flag, and ambulance outside will help you find me. … I have antibiotics, catheters, IVs, endotracheal tubes, diarrhea med, etc... as long as I have it, you can have it. That includes human medics and doctors."

Once word got out, people made their way to the ambulance, where Prošek treated nine animals and applied first aid to two of his neighbors. With help, he cleared fallen trees and debris to get the ambulance to the road. He made stops, helping dozens of animals and people throughout the Keys and South Florida. With the emergency lights flashing, Prošek passed through government checkpoints on the southernmost leg of U.S. Route 1, the only roadway linking the Florida Keys to each another and the mainland.
Along the way, he picked up his colleague Dr. Michael Claudio, a general practitioner he hired to help run the mobile practice. For more than a week after the storm, the duo supplied shelters with needed food and medications, caring for sick animals, checking on residents. All free of charge to anyone who needs it, "no questions asked."

"I am living on Red Bull and Diet Coke; I'm sleeping maybe four hours a night," Prošek said Wednesday. "This is keeping me busy. It's good to feel like you're doing something."

His biggest problem, he said, are insects. "The heat and the mosquitoes. You can't get away."

Ways to give 

'Profound devastation'

Dr. Larry Garcia is the team medical director of UF Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service, a disaster rescue group headquartered at the University of Florida in Gainesville. His team demobilized Friday, leaving Key West after spending a week on the island.

"It's amazing how quickly things are bouncing back," he said Thursday. "The main part of our mission has been to stage and run a field veterinary clinic to provide veterinary care to stray and owned animals with no access to it. Now that there are two clinics operational, we will demobilize."

Delayed by a government-imposed travel ban, Garcia and his group did not arrive in Key West until Sept. 15. "We had to have a police escort and first responders with us," he said.

Once the team arrived, Garcia said they saw a steady flow of patients, supported local shelters and scouted for abandoned animals. "We don't have the ability to run blood work or do radiographs as a fully operational hospital would, but we can provide medical triage, stabilization and supportive care. We're mostly boots on the ground," he explained.

Route 1, he added, is "a mess."

"The way the storm surge came in, it pushed the sand and debris from the east side of Route 1 to the west," he said. "It's covering the road, the bridges. It's almost as if salt just burned everything that was green. All the vegetation, it's stripped."

Massive devastation can be found throughout the state. Having spent a lifetime enduring hurricanes in Florida and the Gulf Coast region, Garcia described Irma as unprecedented.

"This was probably the most monstrous hurricane I'd ever seen," he said. "When compared to Andrew and it's devastation of many areas of the Southeastern United States, Irma was substantially larger and much more intense. While it was hitting the Keys, most of the rest of Florida was feeling the effects as well. It really had some far-reaching impact."

Emotional toll

And not only in terms of property. Dr. Link Welborn operates five practices in the Tampa area, the largest metropolitan area in Central Florida, and says that while the storm did not destroy his buildings, it shook up his staff.

"Initially we didn't think it was going to come anywhere close to us," he said. "The irony is that because we knew the hurricane was coming for so long, it created a higher level of anxiety because the path kept changing."

Having grown up amid the threat of hurricanes, Welborn has witnessed their destruction. His first experience was in August 1969, when Camille smashed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Then 11 years old, Welborn remembers taking shelter that night under his bed. "It sounded like a freight train," he recalled. "My mother worked in the VA hospital at night and couldn't leave. If your employer said, 'stay,' you stayed. Things have obviously changed since then." 

Leading up to Irma's landfall, Welborn said his staff was panicked, mulling whether to evacuate.

"Obviously, we can't tell people to stay; you have to honor their wishes," he said. "But it's hard to put together a schedule when you have that sort of thing going on. We were having these conference calls with managers. What would our message on the websites and social media say? Do we have enough staff members to stay open?" 

Welborn's practices lost power, one for several days, but fared well structurally. "We were very lucky; no complaints. But the fact that we knew about this for so long, and the forecast evolved every three hours — it was a bizarre experience." 

What's ahead?

The risk for more hurricanes to form over the Atlantic Ocean continues through November. The forecasting service AccuWeather predicts at least four more named storms, including two possible hurricanes.

Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, has weakened to Category 1 as it crawls toward the Carolinas, where forecasters expect it to make landfall Tuesday.

Garcia isn't fazed. He's got someone on the inside, telling him not to worry.

"One of our first patients on Sunday morning was a gentleman with a cat who works for the National Weather Service," he said. "He and I stay in touch every single day. He gets to have a conversation with a veterinarian, and I get to have a conversation with a meteorologist."

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