Trial by fire: coping with disaster


This veterinary practice survived a devastating blaze that killed 16 patients and destroyed the building.

EDITORS' NOTE: Veterinary consultant Jim Remillard wrote this article a few weeks after helping his long-time client Dr. Mark Dolginoff in Las Vegas recover from a fire that ruined his clinic, Paradise Pet Hospital.

It was midnight Easter Sunday when Dr. Mark Dolginoff got the call. He had just drifted off to sleep after picking up his daughter at the Las Vegas airport. The caller told him that his practice, Paradise Pet Hospital, was engulfed in flames.

Jim Remillard (Photos courtesy of Jim Remillard)

The fire

Paradise Pet Hospital was open the Saturday before Easter. Thirteen pets were either boarded or hospitalized there overnight: Caesar, Carmac, Dojah, Jack, Jaguar, Manga, Martini, Pebbles, Rascal, Scottie, Shatzie, Spirit, and Willow. Paradise was also home to three clinic cats: Bart, Bacon, and Squishy. That night, when the fire got out of control, there was no containing it. The hospital burned completely, and every pet inside died.

The practice owner in this article, Dr. Mark Dolginoff, owns Paradise Pet Hospital, a three-doctor practice in Las Vegas. He's rebuilding the hospital in its old location using the same foundation. (Photos courtesy of Jim Remillard)

Paradise hospital manager Joanne Light, LVT, says the firefighters did the best they could. With the flames raging and Light and other team members watching in horror, they broke the glass over each kennel to check for survivors. "I remember them looking in and shaking their heads," Light says. "It was heartbreak each time."

The staff, with the help of a hospital administrator from a nearby emergency facility, was able to remove 13 of the 16 deceased pets that dark Easter morning. The firefighters parked their truck in front of the clinic to prevent reporters from shooting footage of the retrieval effort. And a representative with MWI Veterinary Supply transported the pets' remains in her own truck to the emergency hospital, Animal Emergency Center, for storage.

Clients showed their support on the fence outside (Photos courtesy of Jim Remillard)

Light remembers the difficulty of the morning's duties. "The fire chief told one of the younger firemen to put each pet in a cadaver bag, bring it to the pickup, and have us identify the bodies," Light says. "The fireman told the chief he didn't think he could do it. The fire chief said, 'You can and you will. Those girls over there (the team members) need you to do this for them.'"

And so the firefighters brought each animal out with its cage card for team members to make the ID. Firefighters even cut open a storage freezer and retrieved the body of a pet that had been euthanized Saturday morning but whose remains hadn't been returned to its owners. Only three pets' bodies were left in the building immediately after the fire. "I heard later that the firefighters had been trying to retrieve those last three bodies, but the roof started to collapse," Light says. "They apologized to me more times than I can recall."

A new hope: Paradise Pet Hospital was gutted by fire (Photos courtesy of Jim Remillard)

On Tuesday morning, three fire investigators—at risk to themselves—went into the hospital and retrieved all three bodies that were still inside.

The aftermath

At 4 a.m. on that Easter Sunday morning, I received a text message from Dr. Dolginoff: "The hospital has burned to the ground, all patients died, I am going to need your help." Dr. Dolginoff has been a long-time consulting client of mine and a close friend for more than 20 years. That Sunday morning I packed up and headed to Las Vegas for what turned out to be one of the most gut-wrenching, exhausting, and inspirational events in my 28-year consulting career.

Heroism and heartbreak: Despite heroic efforts by firefighters during the blaze to save pets in Paradise Pet Hospital, the clinic's three on-site cats-two shown here before the fire-and 13 client pets perished. (Photos courtesy of Jim Remillard)

By Monday morning Light had gathered the staff, set up a receiving tent, and arranged to have a grief counselor on site for the team and for clients who had lost their pets. The hospital grounds were overrun with local media, and the story was broadcast on CNN and most of the major networks. Team members spent their working hours for the following week at the site until all of the remains were removed, the computer backup tapes were retrieved, and the controlled-drug box was secured.

How did the fire start? We all wanted to know. Rumors began circulating that the hospital could have been saved if a ceiling sprinkler system had been installed. But fire investigators at a live news conference on Tuesday dispelled those rumors. The flames started in an electrical circuit above the ceiling line and completely enveloped the attic and roof area. A sprinkler system wouldn't have prevented the fire, stopped it, or saved the pets.

Past and future: Dr. Dolginoff will soon begin rebuilding Paradise Pet Hospital (seen above before the fire) at the same location using the same foundation as the original hospital. Dr. Dolginoff expects Paradise's new architecture to be similar to this previous incarnation. (Photos courtesy of Jim Remillard)

Dr. Dolginoff wanted to get back to work as soon as possible, so we arranged for the hospital team to work temporarily at Animal Emergency Center, which was already housing the bodies. By the Wednesday after the fire, Paradise Pet Hospital's doctors and team members were seeing patients again.

"One of the things that make this job so challenging and rewarding is the need to make quick decisions," Dr. Dolginoff says. "Obstacles are placed in our path and we have to find a way around them in order to keep moving forward. The key for me has been to harness my own energy and that of my staff and colleagues to muster the strength to go on."

The local veterinary community pitched in by preparing meals for the team and helping with money, drugs, supplies, and equipment to get Paradise up and running at its temporary shared location. Hospital manager Light says the staff pulled together in a way she'd never seen before. "We're a team, not a staff," she says. "We all agree that no matter what we do in our careers, we'll never feel the same way about our co-workers as we do now about each other. And at this point we no longer have daily tears—we're beginning to feel the joy of new puppies and hope for the future."

Loss and loyalty: Dr. Mark Dolginoff and his team supported each other after the fire. Practice manager Joanne Light, LVT, says the experience has been powerful: "In our careers we'll never feel the same way about our co-workers as we do now about each other." (Photos courtesy of Jim Remillard)

The recovery

Trying to help heal pet owners' emotional wounds has been an important priority for the hospital staff. For those clients who lost pets in the fire, Paradise is offering free medical care for the first year of their new pets' lives. A local pet store that lost one of its own animals in the fire offered to give a free purebred puppy or kitten to anyone whose pet died in the fire. Most clients have taken advantage of these generous offers.

Light has been stunned by Paradise clients' open-hearted reactions. "They want answers, but for no other reasons than we do. What caused the fire? Did their pets suffer? Did they die of burns or smoke? All have continued to bring their current or new pets to us. All have been surprised that we're covering the financial costs of their new pets," she says. "They think we don't have to do this. Isn't that unbelievable?"

Letters and calls of support come in every day. Doctors and staff members never thought their clients would lose faith in them, but they are still inspired by the words of support they continue to receive.

Paradise Pet Hospital hosted an open house and memorial service three weeks after the fire. Nearly 500 clients came to show their support, visit with the staff and one another, and to celebrate the lives of those pets that perished in the fire.

The author, Jim Remillard, MPA, CVPM, is a veterinary management consultant and writer in Cool, Calif. He is also a founding member of the Association of Veterinary Practice Management Consultants and Advisors.

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