Lessons Learned in Spirit Lake

by Sarah Buckenberger

June 24, 2013

Volunteer Sarah Bruckenberger with a German shepherd puppy
HSVMA-RAVS volunteer Sarah Buckenberger comforts a German Shepherd puppy during his visit to a HSVMA-RAVS clinic.
Sarah Buckenberger

As the 5:30 a.m. alarm sounded, the other clinic volunteers and I were already up and busy with our morning ritual—inspecting each other for ticks that had found their way into our sleeping bags. A night without ticks spent on the floor of the Spirit Lake Community Center was nothing short of a miracle. Yet this "primate" activity—pulling ticks off one another—had turned out to be a great team-building activity for the volunteers working 15-hour days at the M.A.S.H.-style veterinary clinic on the Spirit Lake Reservation in rural North Dakota. Our clinic was staffed by 15 volunteer veterinarians and technicians, 30 veterinary students, and a handful of veterinarian student hopefuls. We were all there as part of HSVMA's Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) program to provide free veterinary care to animals whose families lacked the resources to obtain it otherwise.

I had been briefed on the conditions at RAVS clinics: getting little sleep, typically on the floor between the surgery tables; no showers; and toilet paper if you're lucky. I was prepared to do, or do without, whatever it took to help bring high-quality and much needed veterinary care to the community. What I wasn't prepared for were the lessons I would learn from the clients and their much-loved animal family members.

My name is Sarah Buckenberger and I'm a second year veterinary student at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. I have been on a dozen RAVS trips in different communities, but it was Spirit Lake, more than five years ago, that ignited my passion for helping people and their animal family members in off-the-map places. I signed up as an undergraduate pre-vet volunteer, despite having very little medical knowledge or field medicine skills worthy of a program like RAVS. Somehow, I was able to convince the team that my dedication and work ethic would trump my lack of medical experience. They accepted me into their program and I embarked on a life-changing journey at a most-appropriately named location.

Understanding the Need

HSVMA-RAVS Volunteer Sarah Bruckenberger at the intake station
As Intake Coordinator, Sarah does the important job of greeting each client and recording their pets' medical histories.
Sarah Buckenberger

My assignment at the Spirit Lake clinic was "Intake Coordinator" — I was to greet clients and record their pets' histories. It was in this role that I came to understand why we were providing veterinary services for this community. The poverty levels in the regions RAVS services are profound. The communities suffer from high unemployment, low paying jobs, and sparse opportunities. Families live in "survival mode" and have few-to-no options for getting medical care for their dogs and cats. The Spirit Lake community was visibly elated to have RAVS there to help.

In the most practical sense, RAVS is about practicing high quality medicine in a field clinic setting, bringing veterinary care to communities that have few resources. At each location it services, the team performs procedures ranging from spaying and neutering to treating injuries and even humane euthanasia when necessary. While spays and neuters are performed by the hundreds, team members also treat skin conditions, new and old traumas, infections, infectious diseases, and any number of other medical needs. As a veterinary student volunteer working in a highly mentored environment, I quickly gained skills around physical exams, surgeries, and administering anesthesia, to name just a few.

But this practical aspect of bringing veterinary care to under-served communities is just one piece of a complex and moving mosaic; for behind every animal that came to see us was a family with a story who wanted the very best for their pet and would wait 5 or 6 hours just to be seen. I will remember for the rest of my career the two 7- or 8- year-old children who walked miles every single day for a week for their puppy to receive necessary antibiotics. When we returned to this location a year later, the same children brought in the one-year-old healthy dog to be spayed! I realized that these families struggled with the same difficult issues we face with our own pets, in our own communities; when to treat, how to treat, and when it's time to say goodbye. The landscape may vary, but the bond between people and their animals is universal.

It Takes a Village

I also came to realize that behind each family we helped there is an entire community — people who have gone above and beyond to bring RAVS to their town in order to gain access to veterinary services. I remember one older woman with five dogs of her own, who drove around town every day to pick up people who didn't have transportation and bring them and their animals to our clinic for treatment. The team was also touched by the community hospitality. On my most recent trip last summer, five families pooled their resources in order to prepare hot meals for us every day. It was their way of ensuring that the team felt welcomed and appreciated in their town. In return, RAVS works with these communities not only as healers, but as teachers. Together we found creative ways to do more with less, such as basic preventive care, when local professional medical care for their dog or cat is not an option.

As each day at Spirit Lake came to an end, exhausted but gratified, I reflected on what makes people living in such adverse conditions so resilient. I also reflected on my own resiliency and resolve which had brought me to Spirit Lake, and on how much more I had to learn. I thought about how important companion animals are to people's emotional and physical well-being, regardless of your socio-economic situation or where you come from, I discovered that in treating animals, one improves the lives of both the animals and their people.

A Life-Changing Experience

Over the past five years volunteering with RAVS, I have had the pleasure of meeting some of the most amazing people who have touched my life in ways I had never expected. My experiences have been self-validating as well as life-changing: It has made me more committed than ever to practicing veterinary medicine, and more encouraged than ever that people, people such as those RAVS brings together, will continue to come together to make this planet a better place for all species.


Sarah Bruckenberger with her dog

Nearly five years ago, Sarah McPherson Buckenberger made the decision to leave her 12-year career in marketing in order to pursue her passion for working with people, animals, and science. She is in the class of 2015 at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. After graduation she plans to practice as an emergency medicine veterinarian. Sarah is also committed to continuing with her current volunteerism that focuses on and benefits animal shelters and field medicine organizations, such as HSVMA-RAVS. Sarah's passion for shelter and field medicine is tied to seeing first-hand the difference a shelter veterinarian can make in the well-being of animals and their family members in a resource-constrained setting.