Technology to Alaska: A Long Road

September 17, 2009

by Eric Davis, DVM

Alaskan sled dog camp
A sled dog camp in Alaska.

I met Eric Jayne some 20 years ago. He was a student at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University, and I was a surgery resident, putting in long days and nights in the teaching hospital and the foal neonatal ICU.

Eric was always known as a guy who "heard a different drummer" by most of his classmates. I suppose most thought that Eric was a little crazy, though he was a good student and sincere in caring for all his patients, from cats to horses.

He was always talking about going off to Alaska after graduation, to provide veterinary care in remote communities scattered across the huge and unpopulated wilderness, where dogs remain an essential part of life and transportation in Native communities.

Eric did, indeed, go directly off to Alaska and became a true "bush veterinarian", traveling to these remote communities by plane, canoe, and dog sled to care for animals that live hundreds of miles from any kind of veterinary facility. As a result, he has become something of a legend in the far north.

A small world

Along the way, Eric hired a young musher named Julie Clements to work as an assistant and schedule his veterinary trips through the Alaskan forests, rivers, and glaciers. She ordered supplies, contacted communities, arranged transportation, and helped Dr. Jayne in his clinics.

Dr. Jayne
Dr. Eric Jayne in Gambell on St Lawrence Island, Alaska. The veterinary clinic was set up in the Police and Fire Department garage.
David Pauli/The HSUS

In the process, she truly developed a passion for veterinary medicine and decided to become a Registered Veterinary Technician. She moved to California for training and working experience, and began her career as a technician in a veterinary clinic in Monterey, California.

Julie also discovered our HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) reservation clinics, and signed up as a volunteer, proving to be skilled, energetic, and thoroughly dedicated to the program. She soon became a regular volunteer anesthesia technician on our clinics in California, Washington, British Columbia, and Georgia.

I had no idea about her connection with Dr. Eric Jayne, until it came up in a conversation one evening, after a reservation clinic day had ended. She mentioned that she had worked for this crazy veterinarian that braved snow, ice, swollen rivers, and disagreeable moose to bring veterinary care to rural Alaska. I thought this had to be Eric Jayne and sure enough, it was! Things came full circle last spring, when Dr. Jayne contacted me through the HSUS regional office for Alaska.

We're glad to help

Although he was quite successful in the surgeries he performed on sled dogs, he wanted to improve the quality of anesthesia administered during the procedures.

He had been using inhalant anesthesia, which is advantageous when considering patient safety, control of anesthetic depth, and ease of recovery, but most anesthesia machines are not very portable and require compressed oxygen for operation. For Dr. Jayne, these issues were further compounded by the fact that his anesthesisa units have to be transported in a backpack, on a dog sled, or in a small airplane.

Portable anesthesia unit
This portable anesthesia unit now travels with Dr. Jayne.
David Pauli/The HSUS

As it happens, HSVMA-RAVS had acquired some military anesthesia machines that are exceedingly light and durable, and do not need oxygen for operation. And fortunately, as a result of her experience on our reservation clinics, Julie had learned how to use these rare pieces of equipment. So, when Dr. Jayne's request for help came through, all of our different paths to the present converged.

We arranged for Julie to fly up to Alaska—a place she knew well—with the equipment and knowledge that Dr. Jayne needed. They went out to a very remote community on St. Lawrence island and did a large number of spays and neuters on dogs, where Julie was able to train her former mentor in the use of the field anesthesia unit.

Over the summer, Dr. Jayne successfully performed over 300 spays and neuters, using the military field anesthesia machine (called a PAC or Portable Anesthesia Complete), which HSVMA-RAVS donated permanently to the project.

His comment: "I love this thing; it has changed my life!"

It goes to show, when we use our ingenuity and work together, quality veterinary care can happen—even on the tundra. We're glad to help.

Dr. Eric Davis developed the HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) program in 1995 and has served as mentor and inspiration to hundreds of young veterinary professionals over the years. He continues his hard work in the field and is currently a consultant for the program.