UT Aligncare Duchess

Duchess, a Knoxville resident's assistance dog

Every person in the world has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in at least one way over the past year. Humans, however, are not the only species affected by the virus and its ability to separate families.

On New Year’s Eve, a Knoxville resident contracted COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized. Although he was used to having his assistance dog, Duchess, by his side at all times, he needed to find someone to take care of his beloved pet while he was treated at UT Medical Center. Luckily, a UT program was able to help.

A part of the UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the Program for Pet Health Equity is designed to ensure that all pets have access to veterinary care.

Dr. Michael Blackwell, the director of the Program for Pet Health Equity and the Center for Behavioral Health Research in the College of Social Work, wants to be sure that all pets have healthcare readily available to them because pets are so important to families in the United States.

“We are addressing a national family crisis in America,” Blackwell said. “Two thirds of households in America have pets and 88% of those families consider their pet a family member.”

“We don’t have a network of healthcare that subsidizes healthcare of nonhuman members. Our work is really about addressing that national crisis. This is about more than just pets. It’s about American families.”

One of the ways the Program for Pet Health Equity aims to execute their mission is by using the program Aligncare, which uses veterinary social workers to help citizens find resources for their pets.

Dr. Pamela Linden, Director of Veterinary Social Work for the Aligncare program, is also passionate about finding community resources for pet-owners to use when they may not be able to afford veterinary care.

“It's not unusual for people to find themselves in situations where they need assistance and there are very few organized systems to assist pet owners with life circumstances,” Linden said.

“People end up being unexpectedly hospitalized, people get sick, people move, people pass away and they have pets.”

“These are all life situations that have the potential to separate families or people from their beloved pets. So, we at Aligncare are very interested in helping communities create systems that are planful to help keep families together,” Linden said.

This organized system is what came to the rescue when Duchess needed help on New Year’s Eve. Not only did Duchess need a place to stay, but she also has cancer, so she needed someone to properly administer her medication while she was separated from her owner.

When Dr. Linden heard about the situation, she immediately contacted Knoxville Animal Control, who were quick to help.

“We have the relationship with the client, so the client reached out and then our partners in Knoxville really stepped up to the plate and made sure that this family got what they needed to stay together,” Linden said.

Their idea was to get Duchess to Young Williams Animal Center, but seeing as it was a holiday, the center was closed. After working it out with UT Medical Center, they eventually were able to contact the shelter who watched Duchess over the long weekend. Also, a key player in the events was Central Veterinary Hospital, who ensured that Duchess’s medication was not interrupted.

After the holiday weekend, the client recovered and was reunited with Duchess. The events on New Year’s Eve are a prime example of how a community can work together to ensure that citizens have the proper resources to care for their animals.

“The best way to say it is everybody came together and went above and beyond what would normally be expected, and the client is so grateful for the assistance of everyone who came together to help him and Dutchess,” Linden said.

“It’s a wonderful story because not only does it shine a light on Aligncare, it shines a light on Knoxville, because there were multiple partners involved and to see people step up to the plate and address a critical need for one of our citizens is what we want to see going on in all communities in America,” Blackwell said.

Created at UT, the Veterinary Social Work program combines the principles of both social work and veterinary medicine to create a field that focuses on bridging the gap between human and animal needs. The intersection of these two disciplines is to thank for the care that Duchess and her owner received on New Year’s Eve.

Duchess’s story is a positive reminder of the good that can come when people join forces to help each other, and it’s a story that people need to hear, especially right now.

“We need to see the good side of America because there’s so much going on in the nation,” Blackwell said. “We get to hear about the frontline medical workers and the frontline workers in other places, but throughout America, we’re still made up of a lot of compassionate, caring people, and whatever we do we need stories that remind us that that's us too … a caring, compassionate nation.”

Aligncare also has community sites in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Asheville, N.C. and Long Island, N.Y. They have student interns from multiple universities including UT, NYU, Stony Brook University and St. Joseph’s College.

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