Restaurateur uncorks special vintage, to benefit UF Small Animal Hospital

By Meredith Rutland

To Richard Gonzmart, president and a fourth-generation member of the family that runs Tampa Bay’s century-old Columbia Restaurant, Rusty the dog is more than a pet. He’s part of the family.

When Rusty, a 5-year-old German shepherd, was diagnosed with bone cancer, it felt like one of his children was sick, Gonzmart said. He sat in waiting rooms and watched as families waited for their loved ones to come out of surgery. He saw the anxiety on their faces.

To his relief, veterinarians at the UF Small Animal Hospital discovered that Rusty didn’t have cancer after all. He had a fungal infection that looks similar to bone cancer when an X-ray is taken.

Gonzmart understood the heartache of being a parent of an animal diagnosed with cancer. To help, the restaurateur created his own blend of wine, called 2004 Rusty Red Wine, as a fundraiser. Only 600 bottles will be produced by world-class winery O. Fournier in Argentina.

About 70 percent of the proceeds from the wine will go to the UF Small Animal Hospital’s oncology unit and about 10 percent will go to several Humane Society branches in cities where Columbia’s seven restaurants are located in Florida. Gonzmart said his goal is to donate $20,000 a year to the oncology unit.

Gonzmart has pledged $100,000 to the oncology unit, said Nick Bacon, Vet.M.B., a surgical oncologist at UF’s Small Animal Hospital.

“I saw so many people in the waiting room with their family members, their four-legged family members. I know the pain,” Gonzmart said. “It’s just a great way to help people and give people hope.”

Rusty is doing well since he started treatment for the fungal infection but will probably need lifelong therapy to manage the disease, said Alex Gallagher, D.V.M, who is treating Rusty.

“Mom and Dad report he’s happy, jumping around, running up and down the stairs,” Gallagher said. “He’s doing a lot better than the average patient.”

Gonzmart attributes Rusty’s health to UF Small Animal Hospital veterinarians’ high level of skill and determination to give Rusty the best quality of life possible.

“We’re blessed to have such a great animal hospital,” Gonzmart said. “If we hadn’t gone there, we would’ve had to put him down.”

Rusty, a trained personal protection dog, has rolled down the window of Gonzmart’s car, leaped out the window and would have tackled a nearby man with a gun had Gonzmart not called him back, he said.

“He would give his life for me,” Gonzmart said.

So when Rusty got sick, it became a family matter. Gonzmart and his wife, Melanie, often bring Rusty to the gleaming-white hospital atrium with another four-legged family member in tow. Rex, also a German shepherd, sits in the waiting room with the rest of the family. At checkups, Rusty gets an X-ray, his blood is drawn and he gets a physical exam. Had he not been so lucky — had the lesions been bone cancer tumors — the process would be different.

Bacon says veterinarians can present owners with up to 10 to 12 treatment options when an animal is diagnosed with cancer. The family chooses the option that best fits their needs.

He said many people want to feel like they still have some control in the midst of cancer. The treatment options can range from radiation treatment to surgery to pain pills — but they all are aimed at improving the pet’s quality of life.

“The goal is to make their lives better,” Bacon said.

In addition, there’s a chance the discoveries the Small Animal Hospital makes in dogs can help treat people.

“It’s a fantastic model for human cancer,” Bacon said.

He said Gonzmart’s donation helps the Small Animal Hospital stay focused on its mission of helping patients. Donation money goes toward education, student research programs, internships, day-to-day needs such as microscopes and large research projects, including those involving bone cancer, skin cancer and bladder cancer.

“It was an astonishingly generous thing to do,” Bacon said.

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