“A Piece of the Big Easy in the Burgh”
The Strip Magazine
By Emily King
In late August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, becoming the most costly natural disaster in United States history. Its winds and rain caused significant damage in parts of Florida and the Gulf Coast, but the deadliest disaster occurred in the highly populated city of New Orleans, Lousiana. When the levee failed to hold back the flood waters, countless people lost their lives and many more were displaced. Dr. Aileen Ruiz was one of the many who lost her home.
Dr. Ruiz is the owner and veterinarian at The Big Easy Animal Hospital in Lawrenceville. She always wanted to be a veterinarian. Her family even jokes that she used to tell everyone that she was going to be a “veteran” some day. With hard work and years of education, she eventually landed her dream job in New Orleans.
In 2005, Dr. Ruiz found herself in a situation she never could have imagined. A hurricane warning was issued in New Orleans. As the storm grew more and more powerful, an evacuation order was given. She packed up a few of her things and her pets and headed to a friend’s house in Pittsburgh to stay until the storm passed.
“I thought I would be able to come back in a few days and everything would be fine,” she remembers. No one could have predicted just how devastating Hurricane Katrina was going to be.
Once the storm passed, much of New Orleans was destroyed, including Dr. Ruiz’s house and all of her belongings. Though most people followed the mandatory evacuation and were able to flee to safety, a lot of them were unable to bring their pets with them where they went.
Several days after Katrina hit, the Humane Society of the United States called upon Dr. Ruiz to help with its rescue efforts in New Orleans. She found herself back in her hometown, a city that was completely different than the one she left. Rather than going home to her old apartment, now destroyed, she was staying on a naval ship and was in charge of a military group.
They began working immediately, teaming up with other veterinarians and setting up a makeshift command center in an abandoned warehouse that they called Camp Lucky. The soldiers and veterinarians built pens for rescued animals and brought in the supplies they would need. Dr. Ruiz worked mainly on the search and rescue missions. She and her team literally broke into houses, searching them for any animals that might have been left behind. If they found any pets, they marked the house with spray paint, letting any returning owners know their pet had been rescued.
Animals that were very sick were taken to area hospitals, while others were taken to Louisiana State University. The animals were examined and any information found either by tag or microchip was recorded for attempts to reunite them with their owners.
Dr. Ruiz remembers just how emotional many of the reunions were that she was able to witness. Though people technically weren’t allowed back into the city, many frantic pet owners tried to sneak in. She particularly remembers one man who was reunited with his Husky dog—everyone around them was in tears. “Things like that kept you going,” she says.
Three weeks and hundreds of rescued animals later, it was time for Dr. Ruiz to start her new life in Pittsburgh. The veterinary clinic that she worked at in New Orleans was completely destroyed, so there was nothing for her to go back to. Instead, she started working at Pittsburgh animal hospitals until she had the means to start her own practice.
The site that she eventually chose for The Big Easy Animal Hospital was a storefront on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, the neighborhood where she was already living. She completely updated the interior of the building, making it a suitable space for an animal hospital, adding exam rooms and an operating room.
Dr. Ruiz decided to pay homage to her beloved city by including design elements and reminders of New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina. Vibrant paintings from local New Orleans artists and photos of Katrina’s devastation and rescue efforts cover the walls. Little details like wrought-iron accents conjure up images of the French Quarter.
In renovating the space for her clinic, it was also important to Dr. Ruiz to make as many environmentally friendly improvements as possible, while staying within her budget. That meant repurposing furniture like old church pews found at Construction Junction to create the reception desk in the lobby, and using green flooring choices.
Dr. Ruiz says that Lawrenceville was the perfect fit for her veterinary practice, as well as her home. She moved into Lawrenceville right before the neighborhood started to reinvent itself, becoming a trendy and culture-rich destination. She said that she has loved watching Lawrenceville grow and change, and that it reminds her of some of the trendy areas of New Orleans.
In the year that The Big Easy Animal Hospital has been open, it has grown and flourished. Dr. Ruiz’s mother and sister have also moved to Pittsburgh from Miami, which had been damaged by the hurricane. Her mother, Mayra, is now the receptionist and financial manager of the hospital, while her sister, Tania, fills in as a receptionist. Her bilingual family and staff make the clinic the only Hispanic animal hospital in the Pittsburgh area. This distinction helps Dr. Ruiz cater to the Hispanic population in Pittsburgh.
As Dr. Ruiz has been grateful for Pittsburgh, the city has been grateful for her as well. Her growing list of clientele considers her a trusted and knowledgeable veterinarian.
“Dr. Ruiz is just a warm and open person,” says Jennifer Ciraulo, the owner of one of Dr. Ruiz’s four-legged patients. Coincidentally, her dog, Nola, was one of the many dogs that were rescued from New Orleans after Katrina hit. Dr. Ruiz has been helping Jennifer and Nola with an ongoing medical issue.
Jennifer says that Dr. Ruiz makes every effort to involve the pet owners as much as possible, and even went the extra mile to coordinate Nola’s care with a specialist. She trusts Dr. Ruiz with her dog because of how caring and compassionate she is with all the animals. When Nola was rescued, the German Shepherd Chow mix was aggressive and considered to be dangerous. It was determined that the reason for her aggression was undiagnosed uterine cancer, which was causing her to be very sick. Under Dr. Ruiz’s care, Nola has been treated for the cancer and has become a sweet and loving dog.
Dr. Ruiz is incredibly invested in Lawrenceville and the health of the neighborhood’s pets. She offers convenient hours, including some evenings and Saturdays, in order to facilitate her patients’ schedules. Besides offering scheduled visits for wellness and sick exams, Dr. Ruiz takes walk-in urgent care situations. She has also coordinated low-cost spay and neuter clinics to make these services more affordable to those who need them.
Although Dr. Ruiz would love to get back to her beloved New Orleans someday, she’s made Pittsburgh her new home—Lawrenceville specifically, where her Big Easy Animal Hospital is located at 5328 Butler Street (www.tbeah.com).