One at a Time

March 21, 2016
by Kate Kuzminski, DVM - HSVMA-RAVS Field Medical Director

Dr. Melinda Merck was presented the 2015 HSVMA Veterinary Advocate of the Year award at the North American Veterinary Conference this past January for her work in the field of veterinary forensics, which she helped create. She is an outstanding pioneer and a true advocate for animals. I watched her acceptance speech and was moved by her humility and grounded matter of fact description of who she is as a human being. She said that she has been saving animals her entire life. Her father once said to her, ”You know Melinda, you can’t save every animal.” Her response was, ”Well, I can try-- one at a time.” Dr. Merck ended her speech by saying that is what she will continue to do. She said it with such sincere conviction. It wasn’t falsely scripted or contrived or meant to be theatrical; it is just who she is. I was reminded how much better the world is because of people like her.

View Dr. Merck's award presentation»

I thought about ”saving animals one at a time”. As a program, HSVMA-RAVS develops long-term relationships with tribal communities. We provide veterinary care to people who have no or very limited access to a veterinarian. We elevate the knowledge about animal care and welfare within a community, and we provide context and training to our future veterinary professionals. We also save one animal at a time.

Emma's Story

A RAVS volunteer shows Emma's injury
The injury to Emma's rear left leg was particularly devastating as she was reluctant to use her rear right leg since her family rescued her.  Photo by De. Jean Goh

Emma, an incredibly sweet, young adult Chihuahua, is one of these fabulous saves. Her family rushed her to our clinic last month in San Carlos, Ariz. after she accidently got out of the yard and was “bumped” by a car in front of her home. The result of her naïve play was an open fracture of her left distal femur and a family that was devastated. The thought of being without her was overwhelming. Emma was a treasured family member adored by all, especially by the teen granddaughter who was her primary caregiver. Emma was loved…and needed. They wanted us to do whatever we could for her.

Meeting a dog with a fractured leg is not unusual for us. Dogs in the communities we work in often get hit by passing cars or experience other forms of trauma that leave them with life-threatening injuries. Emma's situation, however, was a bit more complicated. Her family rescued her last year when she wandered up to their door. They didn’t know her history, but felt that she had not been treated very well. She arrived to them non-weight bearing on her hind right limb. Since that time, she continued to use only her left leg when walking, but would use both when running. This was a potentially serious problem now that she had broken her other “good” leg.

Once Emma was stabilized and her pain managed, we evaluated our options. Repair of the fracture was not possible for us. Taking her to an orthopedic surgeon was not an option for her family. For this case, amputation was the only option with a positive outcome…if Emma could use her hind right normally and painlessly.

The Plan

Emma and her family
Emma's devoted family visited as many as four times a day while she was in HSVMA-RAVS' care. Dr. Goh (right, standing) and Robin Post (bottom right) are also pictured.  Photo by Dr. Jean Goh

Once Emma was feeling comfortable on her pain medication, we performed a full orthopedic examination. Her right hind limb was well muscled, had excellent range of motion in its joints, had a normal patella and was free of obvious degenerative changes that might cause Emma pain. All around it appeared to be normal. Dr. Jean Goh and Robin Post, our San Francisco SPCA team members, already invested in her case, explored her ability to walk normally. Without her left leg available to her, Emma easily walked outside bearing weight on her hind right leg. We were thrilled. We felt comfortable moving forward with the amputation as a very fair option for Emma. Her family, however, was distraught. They could not imagine a three-legged dog. The thought of Emma without her leg was too much for them to handle, and they tearfully considered euthanasia. Thanks to smart phone technology, we were able to receive video of some past patients who had limb amputations, which we showed to Emma’s family. Seeing videos of joyful “tripawds” running, playing and causing general mayhem uplifted Emma’s family. They jumped on board with amputation as the best option, deciding if Emma was not going to be in pain and could use her other leg well, they were ready to move forward. They were no longer afraid of the thought of a three-legged dog. Like all of our cases in the field, our partnership with the family developed from there. We provided the surgical and medical services and they provided a commitment to home care. They were ecstatic that we could save her life. The family rallied and not only made accommodations for Emma’s immediate post-op care, but they also developed a plan to protect her from a repeat “bump.” A new harness was purchased and a plan to keep her on leash whenever outside was hatched.

While Emma was in our care, her family visited three or four times a day, and after three days she was well enough to go home! Seeing the spring in her step as she left surrounded by her loved ones was beautiful. I wondered to myself how it happened that Emma was so “lucky” to be injured on the week we were in town. The stars were aligned. Her timing was perfect. We were able to save another life.

Watch Emma bounce along after her successful surgery»

As Emma got into her family's car and happily headed home, Dr. Merck's words echoed in my head. “Well I can try – one at a time.”

I think we will follow her cue.

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