'A war zone'

Veterinarians, veterinary technicians assist during national tragedy
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'A war zone'


Sept. 21—When terrorists crashed planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, local veterinarians and veterinary technicians were among the first to respond.

Dr. Barbara Kalvig saw billowing clouds of smoke on her way to the New York Veterinary Hospital in upper Manhattan, a few miles north of the World Trade Center. Though reeling from the news of the attack, she and colleague Dr. James Shorter, along with two technicians, gathered medical supplies ("everything we could carry"), closed the clinic, and rushed to the scene to assist the human victims.

"We went with the intention of helping in any way possible," said Dr. Kalvig, a small animal practitioner who has worked in Manhattan for 16 years.

Makeshift triage stations were thrown together along the streets north of the collapsed towers, but no human casualties were being received. That afternoon, Dr. Kalvig and her team were transported closer to ground zero—described as a "war zone"—to assist with the relief efforts. Collapsing buildings nearby often hindered work, however.

Veterinarians and veterinary technicians treat
a search-and-rescue dog.

Ominously, only rescue workers were being brought to the triage stations. "There was this feeling in the air that at some point, people were going to come, but as the day wore into the evening, people never came. They were really only treating rescue workers," Dr. Kalvig said.

Word soon got out that veterinarians were among the medical personnel in the area. That evening, a canine unit with the Federal Emergency Management Agency found Dr. Kalvig and her team. The handler, whose dog had located five bodies in the rubble, said many of the search-and-rescue dogs needed medical assistance, which Dr. Kalvig and her team provided. They later linked up with staff from the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan, who had been treating dogs in a high school theater a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. Staff from the AMC operated the site through that first night, treating dogs as they came in.

Tuesday evening, the Suffolk County, N.Y., Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals dispatched a canine hospital van near the theater, which has served as a key staging ground for treating the dogs coming off the rubble.

At the request of Suffolk County police detectives, Dr. Kalvig compiled a 24-hour schedule of practitioners to staff the van. The typical shift is 12 hours, she said. There are estimates that the triage station will be needed for several weeks, possibly months, as recovery efforts continue.

But response has been such that the station was fully staffed to Oct. 7. Dr. Mitchell Kornet, a member of the Long Island VMA disaster preparedness committee, one of several regional veterinary associations helping with the relief work, has a list of 170 veterinarians in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut willing to lend a hand.

"Let me tell you, this is veterinary medicine's finest moment," Dr. Kornet said. "The problem isn't getting veterinarians and technicians to come down; the problem is telling them you have to wait three weeks."

Ten members of Veterinary Medical Assistance Team-1 were dispatched by FEMA to New York City soon after the attacks to oversee the medical care of approximately 40 federal urban search-and-rescue dogs. VMAT members had seen 170 cases by Sept. 17. The team, which is operating three stations in the area, is working with local veterinarians to coordinate some of their efforts.

Two members of VMAT-2 were deployed to Washington, D.C., to assist with relief efforts following the attack on the Pentagon. Their service was not needed, however, after Pentagon officials announced they would be handling the medical, veterinary, and mortuary needs themselves.

Colorado Task Force member Ann Wickman crosses
the debris with her dog Jenner at ground zero.

The outpouring of support for the veterinary relief work has been overwhelming. In the days following the devastating attack, money, veterinary medical supplies, and dog food were donated. Local practitioners have offered to board abandoned pets and pets of displaced owners. Practicing and retired veterinarians from North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, and even Canada, have volunteered their services.

The night of the attack, one Michigan veterinarian with a medical van called the VMA of New York City, wanting to know whether he was needed. "That's the kind of thing people have wanted to do," said association executive secretary, Effie Cooper, who has been inundated with calls.

The stories-high piles of concrete and twisted metal are all that remain of the twin towers now. Beneath the rubble are the more than 6,000 occupants who Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and other city officials are reluctant to refer to as anything but "missing." Not long after the towers collapsed, canine units from around the country, as well as Puerto Rico, converged on the site to help locate survivors. There are unconfirmed estimates that as many as 300 search-and-rescue dogs are canvassing the site.

"It's really mind-boggling; a complete war zone," said Dr. George Kramer, owner of a specialty referral practice in Mineola, N.Y., about the ruins. Dr. Kramer and several of his staff manned a canine triage station during the overnight shift the weekend following the attack.

"Once you're in there, it's that much worse than what you see on the television or in the paper," he said. "The amount of complete devastation of these buildings is too much to comprehend. They were just pulverized when they came down. Unfortunately, the dogs are going through it, and there's a lot of sharp metal and glass [where] they're digging through materials."

Ground zero was hot the first three days, causing dehydration among many of the dogs. The rains that week led to outbreaks of diarrhea. When dogs are brought to the triage stations, the staff, dressed in protective clothing, wash the dogs and flush their eyes and ears of debris. The air at the site is thick with dust, and the dogs often sustain corneal abrasions and suffer respiratory problems as a result. The most common injuries are cuts and lacerations to their feet. Many are tired from climbing the tall piles of rubble and crawling into crevices too small for humans to enter.

None of the dogs has been seriously injured, although at least one was ordered out of the field for 24 hours of rest. But the majority of the canine units quickly return to searching the rubble. "Most of the dogs go right back out," Dr. Kramer said. "The efforts of search and rescue are still pretty intense. These guys want to be out in the field, and the dogs want to be doing what they're trained to do."