Dr. J. Keith Flanagan fought animal disease and improved Haitians’ lives
Posted July 17, 2013
|| Dr. J. Keith Flanagan (Photos courtesy of Oklahoma State University)
Dr. J. Keith Flanagan would drive his motorcycle for hours on Haiti’s mountain roads to deliver malaria medicine to one person.
“There’s several cases where he would have an accident, maybe get cut, maybe have to have stitches, and then he would hop back on the motorcycle and keep going,” one of his sons, Brian Flanagan, said.
In 26 years, Dr. Flanagan also trained thousands of people in Haiti in the care of animals as paraveterinarians and worked to control animal diseases such as African swine fever, anthrax, and rabies. He and his wife, Jan, let countless people in need stay with them as guests, particularly those who needed to stay close to the nearby hospital.
In addition to the couple’s two sons, Sean and Brian, the Flanagans were godparents to 13 in Haiti, many of whom lived in rural villages. The couple helped many of them pay the costs to go to school, and Dr. Flanagan trained some as paraveterinarians.
Dr. Flanagan died April 3 at a hospital in Florida following a dissecting aortic aneurysm. Since moving to Haiti in 1987, he had worked with government and nonprofit organizations, particularly the Seattle-based Christian Veterinary Mission, to improve human and animal health.
Dr. R. Kit Flowers, president of the mission, described Dr. Flanagan as a close friend who was fluent in the language, humor, and proverbs of Haiti, yet spoke Haitian Creole with a tinge of Oklahoma panhandle accent.
Dr. Flanagan had improved the lives of some who survived on slim margins and was passionate about applying his veterinary skills and living according to his religious faith, Dr. Flowers said.
Desire to help
After graduating from Oklahoma State University in 1978, Dr. Flanagan spent two years as a U.S. Army Veterinary Corps captain and group veterinarian in the 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., then worked seven years at a veterinary clinic in Marlow, Okla., according to a profile written when Dr. Flanagan received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from Oklahoma State's College of Veterinary Medicine alumni association in 2011. His work in Haiti started with a two-week trip in 1986 with the Christian Veterinary Mission, through which he would become a staff veterinarian and farm manager.
|| Dr. J. Keith Flanagan drawing a blood sample
The Flanagans lived in Haiti through the coup in 1991, the rebellion in 2004, and the 7.0-magnitude earthquake of 2010 that killed more than 200,000 people, as well as the subsequent cholera outbreak, according to information from the United Nations and the U.S. State Department. Dr. Flowers said his friend also once survived an attempted shooting in which the gun failed to fire, as well as serious traffic accidents.
Dr. Max Millien, Haiti’s animal health director, worked with Dr. Flanagan more than 12 years.
“He was a very good man,” Dr. Millien said. “He was my friend. He was my brother.”
He said Dr. Flanagan, whom he also called “Dr. Keith,” was loved throughout Haiti and was “the man of all people,” whose death is difficult to discuss.
“He was involved not only in veterinary medicine, but he used to help a lot of people,” he said.
Brian Flanagan described a typical journey he took with his father by motorcycle to help a man believed to be sick with malaria, with frequent stops to talk to rural residents on the way about their animals and a return trip involving rain, falls on muddy mountain roads, and repeated clearing of debris to push-start the stalled bike.
He also recounted how his parents helped a man who was badly beaten. The man had harassed others with demands for money, land, and animals when he gained power in a rural village after the 1991 coup. He was beaten when the former president returned to power in 1994.
“They even beat the bottom of his feet so he couldn’t walk, and he needed somewhere to stay near the hospital to get his bandages changed,” Brian Flanagan said.
The injured man stayed one month in the Flanagans’ living room. Brian Flanagan said his father explained to the attackers that he believed it was time for forgiveness and peace.
Dr. Flowers said he met a woman Dr. Flanagan helped with food for her family while her husband was dying and later trained how to keep alive a pig that could give extra income for food, medicine, or her children’s school fees. He also recalled getting up from bed during a night at the Flanagans’ house and seeing Dr. Flanagan in the kitchen, where he was reading journals on subjects ranging from veterinary medicine to tropical plants.
The alumni association profile indicates Dr. Flanagan initially had planned to return to the U.S. after a few years of training people in animal care. Instead, he continued work on projects involving access to potable water, animal health training, animal disease control, and road and canal rehabilitation.
Dr. Flowers said Dr. Flanagan helped discover the appearance of Teschen disease in the country’s pigs and worked with the swine industry on vaccine development. During his last seven years, Dr. Flanagan coordinated a nationwide effort to eradicate hog cholera, a disease that he saw as particularly harmful for owners of small numbers of pigs, Brian Flanagan said.
“It was just devastating for them, and he felt like this was an opportunity to use his veterinary skills in responding to this problem,” he said.
Though Dr. Flanagan was reluctant to take a desk job to coordinate the eradication effort, he did so knowing that he could help support the paraveterinarians in the administration of vaccines, Brian Flanagan said.
The goal of much of his father’s work was to train others who could take over the work he was performing, he said. Dr. Flanagan had joked that he would leave Haiti once the country’s problems were solved.
Through the alumni association profile, Dr. Flanagan expressed hope that his efforts would continue.
“Flanagan’s wish is that one day when he is gone, the programs he has helped implement and the work he has done will keep moving forward,” the profile states.