Like with many things in life, the best way to prepare for an emergency response is to practice.
Last week, Texas A&M University entities including the Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team (VET), Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, and Texas A&M Health Science Center (Texas A&M Health) practiced their emergency response as part of Operation Lone Star.
Operation Lone Star, sponsored by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), is an annual preparedness exercise that started in 1999 to give emergency response teams a chance to set up and operate clinics similar to what would be used in a public health emergency. To also give the teams the experience of working with patients in the field, the exercise provides services to the nearby population and, as a result, has become one of the nation’s largest humanitarian efforts.
Rookie Year For The VET
The Texas A&M VET’s temporary clinic in Raymondville was a popular stop during Operation Lone Star 2021, and DSHS Regional Health director Emilie Prot said the team was in a perfect location to maximize its impact.
“We are very grateful for the services provided by the Texas A&M VET,” she said. “Willacy County currently does not have a veterinarian in the entire county and pet health is important to keeping our community safe. Our animals are part of the family, and during a disaster, they can become a challenge. We wish to educate our community to be prepared in case of an evacuation. Working with the whole team has been a pleasure, and we are looking forward to the start of a partnership going forward.”
This was the first time that the exercise has included veterinary services, and in five days the team cared for 735 animals by providing wellness checks and vaccinations. According to College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences Dean Dr. John August, participating in the operation was an easy call.
“I had an opportunity to see Operation Lone Star in action firsthand in July 2019 when I was in the School of Public Health,” he said. “I left very impressed from that experience with the impact the program made on families, especially children, along the border who did not have ready access to healthcare. So, I was delighted earlier this year when Texas A&M Health’s Interprofessional Education & Research (IPER) program extended an invitation to our college to participate for the first time.”
August saw the VET’s operation first-hand and said he was impressed by the teamwork and level of care the team was able to provide.
“I returned from my visit to Raymondville this year extraordinarily proud of the whole VET team, involving faculty, technical staff, and students,” he said. “It was a complicated deployment under difficult and very hot conditions. That our group provided primary care and wellness examinations for more than 730 dogs and cats is an astonishing accomplishment and a kindness that the animal-loving families of the town will not soon forget. I truly hope that this is the first of many future collaborations in Operation Lone Star for our college, and our participants in this year’s program deserve my very sincere thanks for a job well done.”
It was also the first time the VET was able to utilize its newest vehicle, an evacuation trailer donated earlier this year by the Banfield Foundation. With temperatures in the mid-90s all week, the trailer was used to house dogs in the air conditioning while they waited to be returned to their owners. The Banfield Foundation also provided additional support for the operation by donating medication and other supplies.
“This was a really valuable experience for our team for a number of reasons,” said VET director Dr. Wesley Bissett. “Not only did this give us a chance to set up and use our equipment like a normal exercise, but we also got to make an impact on the local community.”
With more than 30 participating VET members, the exercise was a great example of how all aspects of health care can come together to make an impact, Bissett added.
“This is just one more example of how veterinary medicine, along with public health and all of the health disciplines, is necessary for the overall health and well-being of a community,” he said.
A key highlight of the trip was the return of veterinary students to the team. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it had been almost two years since students had been able to deploy. Participating students included not only the fourth-year veterinary students on the VET clinical rotation but thanks to the support of the Association of Former Students, also included students from the Primary Care Service rotation and second and third-year volunteers from the Student Veterinary Response Team.
“This was an eye-opening experience, and it really showed what our true potential is not only individually but as a team,” said fourth-year student Adil Kassam. “This was a stressful environment, but we didn’t fall apart; we came together and solved problems.”
One of the big takeaways for students like fellow fourth-year Caroline Cunningham was being able to directly see the help they’re providing to the community.
“I’ve really appreciated this opportunity to deploy with the VET,” Cunningham said. “They’ve worked hard to make sure we are all getting as much hands-on experience as possible, which I’ve really enjoyed. This trip has connected me back to the human-animal bond and has been a great reminder of why I want to be a veterinarian.”
Partners In Response
A VET response almost always includes a coordinated response from the AgriLife Extension, and Operation Lone Star was no exception. But while AgriLife Extension agents deploying with the VET is nothing new, it was the first joint operation since the formation of AgriLife Extension’s new Disaster and Recovery (DAR) Unit.
Eighteen DAR agents from across the state, including many on their first animal-related deployment, deployed to Raymondville and assisted at every level from logistics to command.
They, along with the VET, treated the exercise like a real-world deployment, which included staying in tents on-site and using mobile platforms for logistics and providing medical care. The major difference was that during a typical disaster deployment, the DAR agents are instrumental in securing food for livestock and other large animals.
DAR unit director Monty Dozier, Ph.D., said that it was a successful operation to practice for a deployment but also that it was good to see the combination and depth of skills the team can bring together. For example, he pointed out that having nine military veterans in the unit gave them a wealth of experience in logistics and operational organization.
“This really gave us a unique opportunity to practice a deployment,” Dozier said. “The only real difference between this and a real-world deployment was the preparation time and that we were only dealing with small animals.”
Human Health Impact
While the first-year VET response was centered at one location, Texas A&M had representatives at multiple Operation Lone Star locations in addition to Raymondville, including Laredo and Rio Grande City.
Texas A&M Health’s IPER has been coordinating Texas A&M participation in Operation Lone Star since 2018. This year, in addition to veterinary medicine, participating units included the College of Pharmacy, the School of Public Health, the College of Education and Human Development’s counseling psychology program, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Food and Nutrition Science.
Ten faculty members and 32 students from these units provided immunizations, medication reconciliations, telebehavioral health services, nutrition and tobacco cessation education, and data collection for the event.
In all, more than 100 people took part in Texas A&M’s efforts during Operation Lone Star, which typically provides approximately 40,000 services to 9,000 people annually.
“This event is a unique opportunity for students to work in teams across professions and make a significant and ongoing impact on the health of Rio Grande Valley residents,” said IPER executive director Chris Kaunas. “This operation is part of our emerging vision for a three-pronged interprofessional disaster response curriculum that also includes a Virtual Disaster Day and a live Disaster Day.”
Kaunas said the operation is not only a great opportunity for students to make an impact but is also a critical part of staying ready.
“We are fortunate to have the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) as a Texas A&M System entity and partner in these efforts,” she said. “We’ve all seen the impact of the pandemic and in a state that sees so many natural disasters, it’s important that our health professions students have opportunities to gain these vital disaster response skills.”
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVMBS Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; firstname.lastname@example.org; 979-862-4216