A RAVS Dream Come True

March 24, 2014
by Paul Breckenridge, DVM

Veterinary student practicing suturing techniques
Shea Long

Across the surgery table from me the student struggled, needle holder clumsy in his shaking hand, the muscles of his face straining in a mix of tension, anxiety, and fear. “Relax,” I admonished, “you’re not being graded; you can’t fail here.” He did not relax, though the oscillations of his hand did diminish slightly as he released an explosion of words. “In two weeks I’m going on a RAVS trip and I have to be able to tie this knot in 30 seconds and I just can’t make it work and then I won’t get to do surgery and that’s what I want to do and I’ve already paid and made my plans and I just have to do surgery and I just can’t make this work!”

I finished the surgery, carefully showing him again how to tie a modified Miller’s knot. Then we took a short break. His face had lost the fear, replaced by a quiet desperation that flowed to his shoulders as he slumped in the chair. I leaned against the wall with feigned nonchalance and casually asked, “What’s RAVS?”

How it All Began

The answer to that question, quietly spoken in the surgery suite of the Marin Humane Society in 2008 triggered a chord that echoed within me though the next five years. From our conversation, I discovered that RAVS was a group of veterinary professionals who take veterinary students and professional volunteers to Indian reservations throughout the western United States, bringing preventive medicine and surgical services at no cost to the communities. After so many years in private practice, sharing my experience with students on externships at the Marin Humane Society was surprisingly rewarding. Plus, being a son of the High Plains, I was keenly aware of the plight of the Indian reservations. The thought of helping these communities and working with students instantly seized my Walter Mitty mind. Though life quickly burst my ballooning fantasy, the seed was planted.

Three years later, my family and I moved to San Francisco, and I was in the spay/neuter clinic at the San Francisco SPCA. Here, it was my good fortune to meet Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, a former RAVS trip leader and now co-president of the SFSPCA. With her recommendation, I was selected for a RAVS International Trip with Dr. Susan Monger to Ethiopia, to train the faculty and students of the Jimma University College of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine. The joy of working so intensely with the students and the quality of the people I worked with on that trip refocused my effort to be a part of RAVS.

As I waited for the schedule of RAVS field trips to be posted for 2013, I came across a note that RAVS was looking for a senior staff veterinarian and felt that first flush of excitement sweep through me again. With 27 years as a veterinarian, I felt I was at least qualified to be a “senior”, but with my limited RAVS experience I doubted I was the veterinarian HSVMA was looking for. Placing hope before logic, I applied, and they took a chance on me.

The First of Many Adventures

Dr. Paul Breckenridge provides guidance to a veterinary student practicing suturing
Dr. Breckenridge provides guidance to a veterinary student practicing suturing techniques during an HSVMA-RAVS trip.
Melina Stambolis/HSVMA

On a sunny Sunday morning, I met my first group of excited students outside a hotel in Phoenix. Introductions were made, with students indicating their year in school and the professional volunteers mentioning the year they graduated. The numbers rolled through my mind, 2008, 2011, 2004; I started questioning if this was going to work. 1998 lifted my spirits slightly. Then I was next, “Kansas State, 1986”; only a few jaws dropped and no one fainted, so perhaps I had a chance.

We formed up the RAVS convoy, with Trip Leader Dr. Elizabeth Berliner in the lead in the truck and custom trailer, followed by 10 student vehicles trailed by the old RAVS Ford pickup. We wound our way through three hours of small towns, twisting canyons, and austerely beautiful vistas to the White Mountain Apache Reservation.

As Dr. Berliner whipped the trailer around the parking area, the students parked and the magic began with a continuous line of student and professional volunteers hauling carefully-labeled and color-coded boxes from the trailer to specific areas on the floor of a high school gym, a setup determined by years of experience. Once the gear was in, an eruption of activity filled the gym as everyone opened and unpacked, inventoried, distributed, and assembled pharmacy, receiving, anesthesia, surgery, and recovery, and then stood amazed at the sight of a fully-functioning medical and surgical hospital.

Though the light is fading outside, the first day of a RAVS clinic is hitting its stride. Orientations are presented, with students in rapt attention even after a long and still lengthening day. Then, at the end of this incredible day, came the surgical readiness test. With the students queuing, showing the same mix of tension, anxiety, and fear I saw in that young man at the Marin Humane Society five years and a lifetime ago, I paused and thanked him for bringing me to the start of this incredible RAVS journey.


Dr. Paul Breckenridge is the Senior Staff Veterinarian for HSVMA-RAVS. Read his full bio»