A HERO for 

Follow a hectic day helping pets and people with Natalie Isaza, American Humane's 2016 Hero Veterinarian


As soon as the clinic doors open, the countdown starts. 

Over the next eight hours, veterinarian Natalie Isaza and her students need to spay and neuter 19 shelter animals, give a pit bull named Blessing a heartworm treatment, evaluate a dog with a mysterious injury and remove sutures for Davey the one-eyed cat. Sebastian, the puppy with two broken legs, needs his bandages changed, and Chichi the Chihuahua needs an ultrasound of her bladder. For Isaza and her team, it's a typical surgery day in the University of Florida’s Veterinary Community Outreach Program. For the animals, it’s a second chance.

Isaza started the program, which is largely grant and donor funded, in 2003, offering low-cost or free spays, neuters and treatments to area shelters, rescue groups and low-income pet owners. Animals get the treatment they need to become adoptable. Shelters and rescue groups get care they couldn’t otherwise afford. And students get hands-on experience they can draw on whether they go into shelter medicine or not.

Veterinary medical students at UF don’t have to take the two-week VCOP rotation, but 93 percent of them do.

In the operating room, a 68-pound Rottweiler, a Chihuahua mix and three tiny kittens — bellies shaved, paws splayed — are prepped and ready to be spayed or neutered. This is where many third- and fourth-year students will perform surgery for the first time, under the supervision of Isaza and her team.

"It’s a scary thing," Isaza says. "They’re nervous. But a week later, they go to PetSmart and see the animal up for adoption, playing with her littermates, and they get to say, 'I spayed that dog!’"

Michelle Salob, a veterinarian who's interning with VCOP, marvels at Isaza's ability to oversee so many surgeries at once.

"She can work this room with five students at different levels and be able to safely manage it," Salob says as she scrubs in to spay a puppy. “She can watch for things even before they happen.”

“People say I have eyes in the back of my head,” Isaza says. “If a student is doing something wrong, it's like I can sense it.”

Throughout the day, she coaches the students on points large and small: where to shave a patch of Blessing's back for her heartworm treatment, the length of a spay incision relative to an animal's size, why you can’t hold a puppy while listening to its heartbeat.

The doorbell rings, announcing the arrival of the injured dog from Alachua County Animal Services. In walks a Manchester terrier with wags and licks for everyone in the lobby, and a perfectly circular scoop missing from his shoulder. Beneath his happy face, he’s an anatomical drawing of exposed muscle, tendon and bone. Everyone struggles to imagine what could cause such a wound. A burn from a tailpipe? A wild animal attack? 

Salob names him Carmine. Isaza calls for a consult from the small animal hospital, hoping his front leg can be saved.

In the meantime, the spays and neuters go on, as they do three days a week, 50 weeks a year, last year totaling 2,800 animals. That's a number the program will likely surpass next year with the addition of a mobile clinic funded by PetSmart Charities that they can drive to shelters without the facilities to spay and neuter on site. Isaza and her students treated another 400 animals last year through Helping Alachua's Animals Requiring Treatment & Surgery, or HAARTS, a donor-funded program that provides surgery and medical care animals need to become adoptable.

Some of today's patients were dropped off by rescue groups this morning, others came back with the team from the rural shelter where they worked yesterday. When the team visits shelters in areas where there's little demand for adoptable animals, they bring cats and dogs back to Gainesville to be placed with rescue groups.

"It's really rewarding to identify an animal at a shelter that’s trembling in the back of the kennel, then bringing them out of that environment and into a foster home and getting them adopted," she says.

One of those animals was Copper, a pit bull that had been used to train fighting dogs. 

"He was a skeleton with skin. His teeth had been filed down. One ear was torn off, one eye shriveled up. He was heartworm positive. He had so many parasites his gums were white."

HAARTS covered his care, and Isaza was able to place Copper with a rescue that helped him find a home. When the quest for grant funding is daunting, when the litters of homeless puppies and kittens seem to be never-ending, stories like Copper's keep her going.

By noon, the first round of surgeries is wrapped up, the patients sleeping off their anesthesia under blankets. A litter of six beagle-hound mix puppies came in this morning, and five of them still need to be neutered, along with five more kittens.

While the students take turns grabbing lunch, Isaza takes a moment to consult with specialists in the college on some of their trickier cases. Then the news comes that a hurricane looming off the East Coast will force the program, and the whole university, to shut down at 5 today and stay closed all day tomorrow.

A groan goes around the clinic: No one wants to miss a day.

Word comes back from the UF Small Animal Hospital: Carmine's wound is a gunshot. Isaza's not surprised: She rescued her dog Mouse, an Australian shepherd, from a shelter after Mouse was shot for chasing goats. ("I can't even tell you some of the stuff people do to animals. It’s horrific.") But for every horror story, like the dog named Duncan who was thrown out of a truck on U.S. 301, there are heroes, like the UF veterinarian who reconstructed his mutilated paw and the vet tech who adopted him.

The ones that really haunt her are the ones she couldn’t save. The litter of Australian shepherd puppies, the beautiful Brittany spaniels, the standard poodle. Years later, she still thinks about them.

"The ones that died in a shelter because I didn’t act fast enough – they’ll eat you up. You can’t let it, or it will destroy you. You’re not going to find a place for all of them."

In time, though, maybe you can. In the Northeast, homeless puppies are nearly unheard of because spay and neuter is so prevalent. "We can be like that here," Isaza says. Through the efforts of Isaza's program and many other organizations, annual shelter intake in Alachua County has dropped from 9,000 in 2003 to 3,500 last year. She’s also spreading the word about best practices for shelters: A manual she co-authored has been translated into three languages, setting a standard of care to shelter animals around the world.

By 3 p.m., all of the spays and neuters are completed, the animals microchipped and tattooed. Carmine goes to a rescue group run by a veterinarian, where he'll get surgery to close up his wound. Davey the cat gets his stitches out, and Chichi gets good news from radiology: No tumors or bladder stones. Unlike the other animals here today, which are all adoptable, Chichi already has a loving home. Her owner is part of the St. Francis Pet Care Clinic, where students in the community outreach program work on Tuesdays. Isaza co-founded the downtown clinic with former UF first lady Chris Machen (left) and local veterinarian Dale Kaplan-Stein (center), who, like Isaza, went to veterinary school at UF. 

St. Francis helps low-income and homeless pet owners with food, preventative care, vaccines and exams. Sometimes, when pets require more care, Isaza brings them back to campus to see how she can help.

She's heard plenty of people say that those who can’t afford to care for pets shouldn’t have them, but she can’t fathom denying people facing so much hardship the comfort they get from their pets.

"The human-animal bond is so important. For some of these people, that’s all they’ve got."

Chichi's owner is overjoyed to hear that the pudgy white Chihuahua’s bladder issues aren’t serious. As owner and dog head home together, Salob, the intern, reflects how Isaza’s compassion for people and animals sets her apart.

"She's willing to give so much of herself," Salob says. “In shelter medicine you have to look at animals at a population level, but to her every individual animal is just as important.”

Recognition usually comes in modest forms, like a rescue group tagging her on Facebook when an animal she’s treated goes home with an adoptive family. But in September, on a surreal evening in Beverly Hills, Isaza reluctantly traded her jeans for a gown and attended a gala – also attended by many dogs – where she was recognized by as American Humane’s 2016 Hero Veterinarian. The event aired on the Hallmark Channel on Oct. 28. Although she’s grateful for the honor, she didn't plan to watch the awards – too embarrassing.

As the clinic day ends, the kennels empty one by one as the rescue groups arrive for the animals, bringing them one step closer to becoming pets. Each student now has two more surgeries under their belts, with more to come as they complete the rotation. About 20 percent of Isaza’s students plan to pursue a career in shelter medicine, but she hopes the rest will walk away with more than just hands-on experience. Maybe they’ll go on to volunteer at a shelter or provide veterinary care to rescue groups. Whatever they do, she hopes they’ll remember how to make the most of limited resources, as shelters, rescue groups, and some of their future clients must do.

"The gold standard is great, but you're not always going to be in an environment where you have the money and equipment for that. I hope that’s the one thing I can pass on to the students – how to do the best you can with what you’ve got."

“It might not be what you would do with all the money in the world," she says, “but there’s a lot you can do.”