Reflection on West, Texas by Joseph Wagner

For as long as I can remember I knew my life would revolve around animals. And once I was accepted to veterinary school, I knew I was following my dream. As my fourth year of veterinary school has started, my education and personal experience have exposed me to facets of veterinary medicine I never imagined. For example, my most recent rotation, Community Connections, is a required rotation by the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. This is a rotation I would not have taken as an elective.

Nonetheless, I was eager to see what this rotation was about on my first day. The immediate difference I noticed was the way in which the role of the veterinarian was discussed. The recurring theme the professors reminded us of was the tremendous potential veterinarians have to do good in the world. This paradigm transcended the different subjects broached during the course. From the duties of shelter veterinarians to state health officials, to those of first responders, the take home message was one of duty to the public. Although the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciecnes does have VET (Veterinary Emergency Team), this rotation usually culminates with a simulated disaster scenario where the students take part as veterinarian first responders. My rotation, however, was a little different.

“Although the devastation shocked me, I was left with a powerful and resonating notion of pride and satisfaction with what we did.”

On the night of Wednesday, April 17th, I was about to fall asleep when I received a text message from a friend, indicating the ongoing apparent disaster in West, Texas. Instead of practicing first response techniques in a simulator, we were deployed to the real thing. For 2.5 days I, along with 3 other students, assisted the Veterinary Emergency Team in the first response to the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. This was the first time I’ve been a part of such a massive disaster. Our primary role was to treat the search and rescue dogs as well as any pets collected from the disaster zone. This culminated in us receiving and processing approximately 80 pets that were then transported to the local animal shelter to be reunited with their owners.

This experience changed the way in which I see myself as a soon to be veterinarian. Although the devastation shocked me, I was left with a powerful and resonating notion of pride and satisfaction with what we did. The victims of this explosion lost everything. Some lost mothers and fathers; others lost sons and daughters. Many lost friends. More lost their homes. But at the end of the day, most still had their pets. And they had their pets because of what VET did. The tireless work in documenting and treating each animal we came across facilitated their return to their owners. When families returned to what once were their homes, they knew their lives had changed forever. But we could provide them with the dog or cat they thought was surely lost. Amidst the darkness and chaos comes a small sliver of hope. And this hope may be all they have. From that point they can reassess, rebuild, and recover.

So, when I say this rotation changed me, it changed the way in which I perceive my duties within the veterinary profession. It has allowed me to take a step back from the algorithms of medicine and precision of surgery to ask myself, “When the time comes, can I use my skills to help my neighbors? Will I?” Veterinarians have the power to change peoples’ lives and in turn save peoples’ lives. And thanks to mentors like Dr. Moyer, Dr. Espitia, Dr. Zoran, and Dr. Bissett, I can confidently say I have the knowledge and experience to be a productive member of an emergency response team.

Seeing first hand the profound effect their work in West had on those victims, I cannot sit idly by when disaster strikes again. I would not trade my experiences on this rotation for anything. It has strengthened my commitment to my fellow man in ways I could not conceive.