By: Michelle Larsen
Class of 2011, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine
Many veterinarians and current veterinary students had told me that a Humane Society of United States- Field Services trip, formerly known as Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS), trip would be meaningful and invaluable. I was prepared for the hard work and the hands-on experience, but I was unprepared for the trip souvenir I brought home.
The journey to the Colville Native American reservation in Washington was not without some obstacles. Upon turning left out the hotel, 10 of 15 cars lost sight of the Field Services trailer and soon became lost. We were all quick to realize that the directions that were sent out prior to the trip started from an incorrect location. The 10 lost cars pulled over to the side of Route 2 and waited for Field Services trailer to head back and lead the way.
After 2 hours of driving, we entered the town of Coulee, home of the picturesque Grand Coulee Dam, on the Columbia River. Built during the Great Depression, the Coulee Dam is the largest concrete dam in North America and the 3rd largest producer of electricity in the world.
Just past the Coulee Dam is the entrance to the Confederated Tribes of Colville Reservation. The scenery was beautiful and the terrain unlike any seen in the Eastern U.S.. It was another 2 hours driving through the mountains and pine forests of Colville to reach the first clinic site of Nespelam.
Our fearless leader, Dr. Morgan Peterman, began her orientation outside and within minutes of her introduction the skies opened up bearing rain and hail. Orientation was postponed and we all tried to dry off. Soon after the storm, we began what was one aspect of the field services clinic that never ceased to amaze me: unloading the trailer and setting up the clinic. Each person is assigned an action packer with an inventory list and is responsible for the contents of the box and set-up and breakdown of the box during clinic moves. The truck was unloaded and the clinic set up in an hour. The clinic was comparable to any good community general veterinary practice and the amount of organization, teamwork and sense of accomplishment was truly amazing.
After the clinic was set-up we had dinner, orientation, and the surgery suture practical exam. Happily, all my practicing before the trip paid off and I passed the exam. That evening we were informed of our assignments and I was assigned to surgery for my first day on the clinic. Surgery was non-stop spays and neuters, learning more each time I performed another procedure. The learning environment felt safe, but independent. Each student surgeon had a veterinarian watching and helping the students along the way. With each patient I performed surgery on, I learned more about the procedure, aseptic technique, and proper instrument and suture use.
The next day I was on the receiving team, and there was a large learning curve, especially with regard to a thorough and timely physical exam. While I learned how to palpate a feline kidney and diagnose ear mites, the learning curve was steep. Without much time during vet school to practice this important, difficult technique I appreciated the opportunity.
On my third day I was on the anesthesia team, which provided an invaluable experience. In my anesthesia course at school at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, all of our labs involved the same induction drugs and dosages, and the patients were healthy and exhibited textbook-like responses. In this clinic, however, not a single one of my patients read the textbook and it was a challenging learning experience to find the right surgical plane of anesthesia for each patient.
During our clinic in Nespelam, a special patient named Teddy Bear arrived. His owners had eight other dogs and could not afford to feed them for 4 more weeks. Teddy Bear was hit by car three weeks prior and was lame on his right rear leg and had numerous infected soft tissue injuries, but his spirit was present. Due to the owner’s circumstances, Teddy Bear was relinquished. Dr. Eric Davis performed a right leg amputation and I was assigned as the technician on his case to watch him overnight. The first 24 hours were hard for Teddy Bear, but he pulled through and within a few days he was ambulating around our next clinic stop in Keller. Teddy Bear was soon adopted by a volunteer veterinarian and renamed Omak.
Our 3rd and final clinic was set-up in Omak, a more populated area of the reservation and where I met Apache, a 6-month old Australian Shepard mix with a lot of heart. The animal control officer for the reservation worked closely with our clinic to provide us with food, directions, and advertisement. He truly cared about his animals and brought a few each day to our clinic to be vaccinated and spayed or neutered. Apache was one of his dogs looking for a home. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances, like many animal shelters, he had limited space for the larger dogs and Apache only had a few more days left for adoption. While I was not ready for a dog and had always planned to adopt a dog after I passed my NAVLE in 2 years, a feeling possessed me to help her. The airline told me there was room for her on my flight and there was a store nearby that sold pet crates. It appeared meant to be and I adopted her later that day. She sat nicely in the car with her head on my lap the entire way back to Spokane.
The experience that the Humane Society of United States- Field Services provides is unique to any other area of veterinary medicine and provides an amazing opportunity for veterinary students, veterinary technician students and the communities in which they serve. I know I will appreciate my experience on the Colville reservation for years to come, especially in third year surgery class, and I have my new dog to remind me of the difference I made in 1 dog’s life.