Living on the Road

April 5, 2010

By Eric Davis, DVM

It's early in the morning, halfway through a week of clinics, and I'm trying to wake up on my second cup of coffee as receiving gets underway. A group of elderly Shoshone men in hats and ear muffs, heavy jackets and boots wait patiently with their Heelers and Border Collies for Tammy to check them in. They talk and laugh, glad to be in out of the cold. Their swarthy faces tell of years on horseback in the high desert of northern Nevada. Two have caps that say Vietnam Vet, revealing a bit of what they did in their youth.

The flag outside the community center cracks loudly in an icy, bone-chilling wind. The volcanic mountains around the Owyhee valley are covered with snow, little bits of bunch grass and boulders. The great sage desert rolls for hundreds of miles in all directions. It is home to the coyote, jackrabbit, mountain lion and mustang, but not much else. All things, including the few hardy humans, struggle for what little sustenance and warmth there is. And for an animal in need, there is no veterinary care within a two hour radius.

New recruits

RAVS clinic
A community center building becomes a clinic for these students.
David Paul Morris

I have a new group of students on my surgery service today, and they will each work one-on-one with some very skilled veterinarians. They will be drilled on the details of technique and taught that that their number-one priority is the patient. Every dog and cat at the clinic will have the benefit of good surgical and aseptic technique, an individualized anesthesia regimen, and superior pain management. And the students take this seriously.

After my years in academia, I have found that veterinary students get better surgical training in our program than in any stainless steel lab in school. For one thing, they have to make a serious commitment to learning. And if the long days on clinics aren't daunting enough, there are the long hours of driving between remote communities, camping out on the floor of community center buildings (when there is time to sleep at all), and, of course, the fact that the shower facility is usually used to isolate parvo puppies and sick kittens.

The veterinarians who teach these students have made the same commitment, and they love to teach. They are here because of their skill and their dedication, and they pass those traits—along with the details of surgery—on to the students.

Practice makes perfect

The first case makes it to the table, and I start a spay surgery with a student assistant, who is eager, accurate and efficient; those ligatures are right on the money. The surgery moves along nicely, and, as the skin sutures go in, I say, "Someone has been practicing!"

Dr. Davis supervises surgery prep
Dr. Eric Davis looks on as a dog is prepped for surgery.
David Paul Morris

We complete the procedure, clean up, tattoo a little "S" next to the umbilicus, and get ready for the next patient. And so the day goes—one after the other, dogs and cats, spays and neuters. Twenty, thirty, forty, and more; the surgeries meticulously completed, the anesthesia carefully attended to, the recoveries closely observed.

Dinner happens in here somewhere, as did lunch; I don't remember. At the end of the clinic day, the animals are discharged, and their owners counseled on aftercare. After rounds, there are the usual questions from students about patient care, discussions with technicians and veterinarians on how the clinic is going, and a few old stories about cases we remember from years on the road.

Calling it a day...almost

At the end of the day, I pick up my coffee cup and a gallon of chlorhexidine that needs to go back to the trailer for storage, say good night, and head for the back door of the community center, on my way to my little bed in the goose-neck trailer. Of course, I am stopped by students—still up practicing their sutures—with questions about the Miller's knot and the horizontal intra-dermal pattern.

After another hour, I finally step out into the cold night; it's snowing gently. I put the gallon of chlorhexidine on shelf, pull out my mattress, and, in the dark, watch the flakes swirl and dance around the window in the little storage room where I sleep.

Things are quiet and peaceful in this little spot of human habitation that is Owyhee. Although it's late, a bit cold, and there's no shower or phone contact with home, it has been a good day. Students learned, animals received excellent medical care and surgery, and people who really care treated some very difficult cases.

We completed our mission, again. The best part is that, for this group, this day has been normal.

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.