by Ahne Simonsen, DVM

December 13, 2013

Although accurate, the official RAVS mission statement falls short of describing the program’s real meaning and impact; as do my words each time I try to package my experience for someone who has never participated in a RAVS clinic. The magic of RAVS is a melding of tangible and intangible with the interplay of multi-faceted goals. It is high quality veterinary field medicine, it is teamwork, it is teaching, it is long days and short nights, but it is also the excitement of success, the peace of kindness, and the satisfaction of needs. RAVS is many things to many people.

RAVS is driving a pick-up truck hauling a 35-foot horse trailer packed with equipment and supplies 11,000 miles through rural America to meet the veterinary needs of communities in various Native Nations. Whether the drive is clear across the Dakotas or just a few hours across state; takes us on highways or dirt roads; during the day on the way to set up a clinic in an old bus garage or late at night after a long day of satisfying work topped off by the excitement of a nearby tornado; the drive always has an element of the excitement for what is to come and the satisfaction of what has been accomplished. There is a sense of solitude and reflection as we each become one with the open road; a road that stretches endlessly behind us and in front of us, keeping us connected to each previous clinic and leading us to each future clinic.

RAVS is the one-day a year when a community struggling with poverty and limited resources can proudly meet the veterinary needs of their animal family members. Many of the communities we serve each year, live with the day to day reality that, with no local veterinary access, many of their animals will die from treatable and preventable causes - parvo virus, distemper virus, wounds inflicted fighting over females in heat, or being hit by a car. The fate of timing with our visits can be the difference between limited home nursing care and access to high quality field medicine; or between suffering nature’s slow death and access to a quick, kind death via humane euthanasia. As a result, by day break most clinic mornings there is a long line of community members, with their dogs and cats, and sometimes their neighbors’ dogs and cats in tow, waiting patiently for the clinic doors to open.

Superman and Peppermint

This season, Peppermint (left) and Superman (right) were two of RAVS’ success stories in the fight against canine infectious diseases in San Carlos, Ariz. Both dogs returned to the next month’s wellness and surgical clinic as healthy dogs.
Ahne Simonsen, DVM/HSVMA

RAVS is a “spay-cation” for our professional volunteers. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians from practices and shelters all over the United States volunteer their time to rough it with RAVS – working 16 hour days, sleeping on a gym floor with only the most basic of amenities. Although many would consider this definition of vacation to be a bit skewed, RAVS volunteers have been known to liken the trips to “vet summer camp”! Being a part of a RAVS team is about camaraderie, the exchange of techniques, the creation of fresh ideas, and new friendships. Many RAVS volunteers and staff stay in touch long after the experience ends and often become repeat ‘vacationers’.

Dr. Janet Massaro and her son, Andrew

Dr. Janet Massaro of New Jersey (left) joined her son Andrew (right), a veterinary student at Cornell, at the 2013 White Mountain Apache clinics. Dr. Massaro had us all in tears at the last evening rounds when she thanked her son for one of the most meaningful adventures of her life.
Michael Friefold

RAVS is the smile on a young child’s face when they hear their cat or dog’s heartbeat through a stethoscope for the first time and then listen to their own heart and realize the sound is one and the same. Knowing that animal health is more than vaccines and wellness care, RAVS’ students are encouraged to promote the human-animal bond and spend the time to educate each patient’s human family members. Helping children to identify with their animals as beings with value and needs helps instill respect and promote kindness and patience. Not only can dogs and cats serve as a companion in a community challenged by poverty and depression, but they also can be deterrence to mischief or a glimpse at a career.

pine ridge clinic resized
In Pine Ridge this year, an eight year old boy named Jersey was among the many young community members who impressed us with their care for their animal family members.
Ada Norris

RAVS is a dark gym lit only by the headlamp of a veterinary student while she or he works diligently on a practice board perfecting proper ligatures and suture patterns under the watchful eye of an experienced surgeon. From client communication to anesthesia and surgery, students benefit from supportive one-on-one mentoring from an array of volunteer professionals with a range of experience and insight. All the preparation and hard work comes together for a student when they have their first “I got it” light bulb moment. As a trip leader, there is a moment of pride when you step back just for a second to look at the big picture of the clinic and see an amazing group of dedicated professionals guiding hard-working students who just days before were nervous and fumbling, now confidently caring for patients.

Maybe I struggle to define RAVS because it is so much bigger than any definition could do justice. Or maybe John Steinbeck got it right when he wrote, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike.”- I know each RAVS clinic is its own special journey. Or maybe, the only true way to define RAVS is through its meaning to each patient, each client, each community, each veterinary student, each veterinary professional volunteer, and each staff member that the program touches. I think one RAVS staffer summed it up best when she said, “RAVS is just as much new friends, new family, old passion, as it is long days, short nights, stinky, itchy, wonderful. . .”

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