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Indianapolis doctor helps COVID-19 patients and their pets

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — An Indianapolis doctor is not only saving people hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but she is helping their pets too.

Dr. Holly Irwin is in her last year of residency as an emergency physician and pediatrician at IU Health Methodist Hospital, Riley Hospital for Children and Eskenazi Hospital. She said the pandemic means more people are in the hospital, or homeless and therefore unsure what to do with their animals. So, she and the local group, SOAR, keep these pets out of shelters and give them a home away from home.

“SOAR stands for Street Outreach Animal Response and we are an organization. We help people who are in a crisis of some kind. Whether medical, financial, mental health, homelessness, we help people who are in crisis maintain ownership of their pets,” said Dr. Irwin.

It is an unlikely pairing of patients’ pets and those patients’ physician. However, Dr. Irwin said animals are one of life’s best medicines.

“The human-animal bond is incredibly strong,” said Irwin.

So even in her last year of residency as a frontline doctor, working as much as 80 hours a week, Dr. Irwin still finds the time to help whoever she can.

“As a doctor, the reason I do this is because I love to help people. And I think it just fills a special part of my heart because I love animals so much as well,” said Dr. Irwin.

She has four dogs and one cat herself, so a few years ago when a woman refused to be admitted to the hospital, out of fear no one would care for her pets, Dr. Irwin stepped in and joined SOAR. Since the pandemic started, their numbers have jumped by 25%. Both COVID-19 patients and people who are now homeless because of the health crisis are in need of a place for their pets.

“The pandemic has created a lot of need, people needing help and that is what we are here for,” said Dr. Irwin.

Now the group is taking in around 40 to 70 animals a month in Indianapolis. They even adopted an elderly dog after his owner died from coronavirus. For the SOAR volunteers, the animals are more than just a part-time passion.

“This, for me, is kind of like a reset button. Being with the animals it is just kind of my happy place so it is what I love,” said Dr. Irwin. 

Dr. Irwin said everyone needs an outlet from work and this is hers. For the pet owners though, Dr. Irwin’s compassion is lifesaving. 

“It’s heartwarming. It is enough to – you know – put a little bit of faith back in humanity,” said DJ Vickers.

Vickers is a veteran. For two months he was away from home getting care, knowing his dog Stitch was being cared for.

“Coming home to my best friend,” said Vickers.

Homecomings between the pet owners and their animals are what it’s all about.

“That’s usually something that makes me feel pretty emotional,” said Dr. Irwin.

It’s one of the few times you will see this doctor break down. Proof that the true sign of a hero is measured most by their drive to help someone else, be it patients or pets. It’s a power stronger than any pandemic.

Dr. Holly Irwin volunteering at SOAR.

“To be able to help people in this way and help keep that bond that means so much to them,” said Dr. Irwin. 

SOAR is a non-profit, they could always use some help with the work they do. They need both volunteers and monetary donations. They could also use dry pet food, cat litter, and cleaning supplies. Find out more about donating here or follow the group on their Facebook social media pages.