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Flooded out of Big Easy, veterinarian builds new life in Lawrenceville

| Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, 11:48 p.m.
Aileen Ruiz moved to Pittsburgh after she was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  She owns the Big Easy Animal Hospital and the Big Easy Dog Daze & Cafe in Lawrenceville.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Aileen Ruiz moved to Pittsburgh after she was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She owns the Big Easy Animal Hospital and the Big Easy Dog Daze & Cafe in Lawrenceville.

Ten years ago, Aileen Ruiz arrived in Pittsburgh, sleep deprived and weary from waiting hours in the car to get out of Louisiana, then driving north as Hurricane Katrina approached.

Ruiz, 42, fled the floods to stay with a friend in Pittsburgh. She slept during her first hours here, awaking to watch on TV as New Orleans flooded and her home was destroyed.

“I knew that the city was in deep trouble,” she said. “I knew that I had no home. I had no job. I figured I'd give Pittsburgh a try — and the rest is history.”

Ruiz is originally from Miami. She went to veterinary school in New Jersey, then did an internship in New Orleans and lived there for two years.

Ten years later, she's met and married her husband and opened a Lawrenceville veterinary clinic named for the city that still has half her heart.

Ruiz opened the Big Easy Animal Hospital in 2005. The clinic focuses on affordable care and aims to always care for the animals first, rather than make lots of money, she said.

The Big Easy's decor is New Orleans-inspired, with wrought iron on the wall, beads hanging and black-and-white photos of her work rescuing animals in New Orleans after the hurricane. Her house nearby in Lawrenceville also reminds her of New Orleans.

“Everything had to kind of remind me a little bit of New Orleans for me to be OK,” she said.

Her veterinarians don't wear white coats, and she plans to open a dog-friendly cafe on the side of the clinic, so people can stop in with their pets and enjoy a cup of coffee. It has doggy day care, boarding and grooming services.

The Big Easy Animal Hospital is hosting an anniversary party from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday to give thanks to Pittsburgh and celebrate the spirit of New Orleans. The hospital is bringing in NOLA on the Square to cater food and will have live jazz music.

Ruiz credits Pittsburgh for helping her to rebuild and enabling her to run a successful business. She was depressed for much of her first two years in the city but said she's learned to be resilient, just like New Orleans and the people who still live there.

“Don't be stuck in that depression, just move forward,” she said.

She visits New Orleans about twice a year and hopes someday to be able to have homes in both cities.

“I'm fond of Pittsburgh ... my home is here,” she said. “My heart is in both places.”

Katelyn Ferral is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5627 or kferral@tribweb.com.

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