First-year WCVM student Francisco Gomez Cruz of Caguas, Puerto Rico.
First-year WCVM student Francisco Gomez Cruz of Caguas, Puerto Rico. Photo: Christina Weese.

Hurricane Maria prepared vet student for life’s challenges

While Francisco Gomez Cruz was growing up in Caguas, a city and municipality of around 130,000 people on the island of Puerto Rico, he was a frequent visitor at his grandparents’ farm located only a few minutes away.

By Lynne Gunville

The small hobby farm was home to a variety of animals that always included horses, often Paso Finos — the light horse breed indigenous to Puerto Rico. Since horses had always been a fundamental part of his family’s life, Gomez Cruz was happy to carry on the tradition by spending many hours around them on the farm.

For as long as Gomez Cruz can remember, he loved riding and working with the horses, and when one of the animals became sick, he was impressed by the expertise of the veterinarian who treated him.

“Seeing what he was doing and all the procedures he was performing made me realize that this profession was something I would like to practise for the rest of my life,” says Gomez Cruz.  

He began volunteering and shadowing the veterinarians at Equus Pet Clinic, a general clinic in Caguas that treats both small and large animals. He particularly appreciated the mentorship of the clinic’s owner, Dr. Jose de Angel.

“He [de Angel] is an equine vet who graduated from Kansas State [University’s College of Veterinary Medicine],” says Gomez Cruz. “He gives students the opportunity to continuously learn and develop their skills. I wish to do the same with students when I have my own practice and influence students as he did with me.”

Gomez Cruz was completing his final year of high school when Hurricane Maria plowed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017. The category 5 hurricane caused incredible damage and flooding as well as a power disruption that lasted for several months. 

Although they were still without power, Gomez Cruz and his classmates returned to high school where they united with other students in their area to gather and distribute supplies to the ravaged communities that were still waiting for help from the government.

Gomez Cruz helped with receiving, organizing and preparing aid packages for these communities, and he accompanied a group that delivered supplies to Humacao, a city that had been hit particularly hard by the hurricane.

In May 2018, Gomez Cruz received an award from the City of Caguas in recognition of the leadership that he had shown during this difficult time for his city and community.

Despite the challenges posed by the hurricane, Gomez Cruz graduated from high school in 2018 and continued with his goal of a veterinary career by moving to Ames, Iowa, where he pursued a Bachelor of Science (animal science) degree at Iowa State University (ISU).

While attending classes at ISU, Gomez Cruz maintained his interest in large animals by joining the Block and Bridle Club, a student organization that promotes animal agriculture. He also worked as a research assistant — an opportunity to learn about lab procedures and instruments as he worked with scientists at ISU’s veterinary school.

Gomez Cruz completed his undergraduate degree in spring 2022, and a few months later, he moved to Saskatoon — his first time in Canada — to begin first-year classes at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

So far, Gomez Cruz has particularly enjoyed the labs in animal welfare and behaviour and the opportunities they provide for hands-on experiences working with animals.

Since his family background and volunteer experiences in Puerto Rico have always fostered his interest in equine medicine, Gomez Cruz plans to pursue a residency in that specialty once he completes his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 2026.

Gomez Cruz looks forward to operating a private practice and has a special interest in equine sports medicine and orthopedic surgery that dates back to his volunteer experiences at Equus Pet Clinic when he accompanied the veterinarians to the racetrack.

Whatever challenges lie ahead, Gomez Cruz’s past experiences have given him the discipline and resolution to cope.

“After the hurricane, I was without electricity and water for three months,” says Gomez Cruz. “Going to school with no power and going back to my home and study with a candle by my side made me a better student. I have been through the worst and whenever I go through a difficult situation, I remember about 2017 and how anything would compare to those days.”