In September of 2017, a category 5 hurricane, Maria, swept through Puerto Rico causing significant devastation. At the same time, Puerto Rico natives Dr. Aida Vientós-Plotts, and her colleague Dr. Willie Bidot, were completing their residencies at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Small Animal Internal Medicine and Lab Animal Medicine, respectively. The doctors felt the need to take action to help those in their hometowns impacted by the natural disaster.
“We wanted to help as much as we could in the way that we knew we could,” said Vientós-Plotts. She explained that they were able to leverage the resources they had at Mizzou to serve the communities in need in Puerto Rico.
Dr. Vientós-Plotts was able to confirm that her and Dr. Bidot’s families were safe after hurricane Maria, though her mother had no power from September 2017 through February 2018. They then turned their attention to the other inhabitants of the island–animals, many of which were left without homes or were injured during the storm and subsequent flooding. Of particular concern was the increase in human cases of leptospirosis, which is a communicable disease that can be transmitted by domestic animals. Vientós-Plotts and Bidot reached out to veterinarians and medical supply companies for donations, supplies and vaccines. The two were able to see the donations distributed to those in need through their partnership with a local veterinarian who had knowledge of the areas that were heavily impacted by the disaster and had connections to local rescue organizations who could assist with the effort.
The high demand for veterinary supplies care and supplies did not diminish after relief efforts for hurricane Maria ended. Vientós-Plotts and Bidot established Veterinarians for Puerto Rico as a 501C-3 non-profit organization. The organization organized free clinics, fundraising events, and eventually partnered with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) in 2018. So far, in collaboration with HSUS and other organizations, they have been able to help nearly 30,000 animals for free.
Vientós-Plotts notes that collaboration with those on the island was an important part of the success of Veterinarians for Puerto Rico. “We initially wanted to bring as much help as we could but then we realized that there were actually a lot of people that wanted to help that were already there,” she said. “Our mission has shifted more towards arming our veterinarians and technicians with the tools to provide those services in areas where it is not as accessible.” To facilitate this, they purchased a mobile clinic for the local veterinarians and technicians to use and make an impact locally. Not only did this approach help empower those in the community that wanted to make a difference, but Vientós-Plotts says that it gave herself and the team more time to focus on their primary jobs as veterinarians here in the states.
The efforts of Aida Vientós-Plotts and Willie Bidot is an excellent example of how researchers at Mizzou can utilize the skills and resources unique to their position to make a difference. Her experience highlights the importance of collaboration with communities during outreach efforts. “So it’s not just us doing something for Puerto Rico. We are giving other people the tools to do something for their country.”