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How veterinary medicine can save the world, Part 3: Serving the public

Natural disasters. Disease outbreaks. Terrorist bombings. When crisis hits, these veterinarians are on the scene.
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Nov 01, 2013

Scott Mason found his passion in the bombed-out shadow of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Lorna Lanman heard her passion in the eerie silence of small family farms stripped bare of livestock by foot-and-mouth disease in northern England in 2001. Carrie McNeil found a way to harness her activist spirit through investigating everything from rabies to malnutrition with the Epidemiological Intelligence Service (EIS), part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).


Dr. Scott Mason (right) and two task force members work on an injured search-and-rescue dog during disaster aid operations after the Moore, Okla., tornado this year.
Veterinarians all, Mason and Lanman spend most of their time in private practice, seeing dogs and cats, taking histories, treating disease and behavior problems, working the traditional front lines of veterinary medicine. McNeil has worked in private practice but now does public service work full time. When disaster strikes, when public health is threatened, they're all three packed up and ready to roll. But recently, between crises and disasters, they had a break—and time to talk with dvm360 about how public service had brought a new passion into the trajectory of their veterinary careers.

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When Scott Mason, DVM, EMT, tries to remember all the deployments across his 18 years of crisis response, he can't do it. He rifles through the names of hurricanes and tornadoes when he realizes they are all starting to blur together. The first, however, is stamped uncomfortably in his mind—so much so that he thinks he suffered a mild case of posttraumatic stress from it.

On April 19, 1995, Mason had just begun seeing clients in his small animal clinic about 10 miles from downtown Oklahoma City. At 9:02 a.m., the front windows rumbled. He stepped outside and looked to the sky, thinking a sonic boom may have caused his building to shake. It wasn't a sonic boom. It was the work of a domestic terrorist who had parked a rented Ryder truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and set off a fertilizer bomb that ripped the concrete and steel structure into the street, killing 168 people, including 19 children.

In minutes the story broke on television. The news reporters were asking residents to stay away from the site where rescue crews were busy searching mountains of concrete for survivors. "I'm a guy who always follows the rules," Mason says. "So I stayed away."

But two days later the state veterinary association issued a call for volunteers. "Boy, I was like, 'Sign me up,'" Mason says. "I grabbed tons of stuff off my shelves and rushed down there. We had to go through some processing and we got some makeshift badges and we went onto the site to connect with the search and rescue groups. I only remember treating one laceration while I was down there and one case of dehydration—I gave some fluids.

"But it was an eye-opening event," he continues. "It grabbed that passion in me to help. Maybe some of it was a little rush of adrenalin, I don't know. But it sparked something."

It also slapped him in the face. Mason was walking back from the ruins of the federal building to one of the peripheral work sites at about 2 a.m. during one of his night shifts. He had, of course, noticed the orange spray paint investigators used to mark places where evidence had been found.

"I was walking back in the eerie glow of the building, which was lit up, and I looked down and saw a spray painted area where they had found just a part of somebody," he says. "You just break down at a moment like that because the impact suddenly smacks you in the face. The whole thing just seemed incredibly sad."

Since that night in 1995, Mason has observed plenty more disaster. "I've been through enough now that most of this stuff I've seen before," he says. He compares the experience to veterinary practice, where doctors perform euthanasia regularly but learn to bury their heads and keep going. That doesn't mean he's immune.

On May 20 this year, an EF5 tornado whirled into Moore, Okla., with winds up to 210 mph, and, of course, Mason and his National Veterinary Response Team (NVRT) were deployed in the search and recovery effort. On their second day in Moore they were dispatched to the Plaza Towers Elementary School site. They had worked all night Monday and all day Tuesday and were exhausted when they walked through the shattered walls of the school where seven children had died.

"As we entered into where it was pretty much obliterated, I looked off to my left," Mason recalls. "One wall of this one classroom was still standing. It still had the hooks on the wall and some of the kids' backpacks were still hanging up there.

"It was one of those moments where—bang!—it just hits you upside the head," he says. "It was the hardest I'd been hit mentally since the Murrah bombing. I've got two daughters. You know what's happened right where you are and it just breaks your heart. It breaks your heart."

But it didn't slow him down. Mason is a passionate advocate for the place of veterinarians in disaster preparedness and response. "Sometimes people say, 'We've got to focus on saving people … don't worry about the animals,'" he says. "What I explain to them is that animal issues become people issues. There have been several studies showing that people will put themselves in harm's way readily for their animals. I saw a television clip of a roadblock during a California wildfire where a ranch owner pulled up with his truck. The officers told him he couldn't go in. He said, 'Well, you'll have to shoot me then,' and got back in his truck and went in after his horses."