A Lesson in Gratitude

September 18, 2009

by Jennifer Pepson

I take my dog to a veterinarian about 12 miles away from my home. In those 12 miles, there are at least 100 other veterinary clinics and emergency animal hospitals along the way.

Veterinary professionals and pet stores abound in my area. There are at least two stores that sell a variety of dog food products within walking distance, and if I need to find a specialty product, it's merely a 10 minute drive away.

So, when I recently made a trip through the desert of Nevada to meet up with the HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) team, I wondered what I would do if the nearest vet was hundreds of miles away—or if there was only one store in town.

A path less traveled

Nevada landscape
The Nevada landscape was a stark contrast to the city streets I was accustomed to.
Jennifer Pepson/HSVMA

My seemingly endless journey on a two-lane highway to Owyhee, Nev., was unlike any I'd ever traveled. It was a barren landscape of plateaus and plains, with only the occasional ranch-style house breaking up the terrain.

My directions were vague and included instructions like "Go three blocks past the school". I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to find my destination, but as I arrived on the reservation, with a population of approximately 1,500 people, it hit me—everything in the town was on the main road.

There was only one school, one hospital, and one police station. There was no animal shelter on the reservation, nor was there a vet clinic anywhere in sight.

The reservation had been pared down to meet the basic needs of the residents and did not seem to include the needs of their companion animals. The nearest vet was over 96 miles away in Mountain Home, or even farther away in Elko, Nev.

Day One

It was six in the evening when I arrived, and I thought the team would surely be winding down, ending the day with a meal in the company of friends.

Students with dog
Two veterinary students gather history on an animal brought to the clinic.
Jennifer Pepson/HSVMA

I couldn't have been more wrong—not about the meal, as the residents had generously provided a banquet of food, but about it being the end of the day.

As I was led inside the clinic, which in its former life was a small common area in the fire station, I saw rows of cats and dogs waiting for surgery, in the middle of surgery, or recovering from surgery.

The space had been completely transformed into a fully operational animal hospital. More than 12 hours after the day had begun it was still far from over, and I was told residents would soon be arriving to take their companions home.

It was all I could do to stand out of the way of the busy surgeons, students, and vet techs as they kept up their unbelievable pace. When all was said and done, it was after 10:30 p.m. and 51 procedures had taken place.

Day Two

Residents wait for clinic to open
Area residents arrive early and patiently wait for their pets to be seen.
Jennifer Pepson/HSVMA

The first arrivals were there at 6:45 a.m., with their pets in tow to be spayed or neutered, as well as receive any necessary treatments or vaccinations. By 10 a.m., the parking lot was full of cars and trucks.

As the roster of patients and clients filled up, we began taking names for a waiting list. The locals gratefully thanked the team of veterinarians, technicians, volunteers and students, but it was their actions—a willingness to wait patiently in the sweltering heat for the veterinary care their pets so desperately needed—that spoke louder than words.

I realized that I would do the same thing in this situation, if the nearest veterinary professional was 96 miles away. I would hope for the best and take my dog to free clinics when I could. What else could I do with little or no access to basic veterinary care? For these locals, this is their reality.

At the clinic, evidence of this reality is seen in the litters of four week old kittens surrendered, because no one can take care of them; dogs hit by cars, whose limbs are now being amputated after going months without treatment; puppies struggling for survival after contracting highly contagious, yet easily preventable diseases such as Parvovirus.

Or in one particularly heartbreaking case, a dog abandoned in the middle of desert, left with a rope around her neck, with no food, water, or shelter in sight, only to be found by an HSVMA-RAVS staffer, Dr. Kate Kuzminski, and rescued in the nick of time.

It was then that I understood exactly how lucky I am and how much I take the availability of veterinary services for granted. And it was only then that I realized just how vital our HSVMA-RAVS clinics are.

Although I had read numerous stories from the field and know the statistics, seeing the faces of the people and animals we help is an entirely different experience—one that I'm likely to never forget.

Jennifer Pepson is the Manager of Member Benefits and Services for HSVMA.