HSVMA-RAVS Helping Pets and People in South Dakota

By Julie Hauserman

August 11, 2011

Veterinary student Blaire Cullman-Clark’s heart absolutely melted when a little girl at South Dakota’s remote Cheyenne River Indian Reservation came in carrying her best friend, a Chihuahua named Nosy.

The dog and child, both nine, had been inseparable all their lives. It was time for Nosy to get vaccinated at a mobile clinic run by The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association’s Rural Area Veterinary Services Program (HSVMA-RAVS).

But when Cullman-Clark examined the dog, she saw something troubling: Nosy had a baseball-sized mass on her abdomen. Indeed, after consulting with the staff veterinarian, it was agreed that Nosy needed surgery right away for a large hernia that, if left untreated, could cut off blood flow to her organs and threaten her life. Despite lots of tears and worry from her human family, Nosy came through the operation and recovery just fine.

“We were able to save Nosy’s life and give this little girl and her best friend more time together—much longer than they would have had if we hadn’t performed the surgery,” says Cullman-Clark, a third-year student at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences in California. “Seeing the human-animal bond between those two was amazing, and being able to really help is something I will never forget.”

Each year, HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) provides more than $1 million in free veterinary services to some 8,000 animals in more than 40 communities. The top-notch mobile clinics go to under-served rural areas, where poverty and geographic isolation make regular veterinary care inaccessible. The program also provides invaluable hands-on training for hundreds of future veterinary professionals like Cullman-Clark.

In many of these communities, the nearest vet may be 100 miles away. We are frequently the only veterinary care these areas will ever see.

The clinic at Cheyenne River Indian Reservation was held June 12-18. A team of 46 people—including 30 veterinary students, eight veterinarians, five licensed veterinary technicians and three support volunteers—arrived with a trailer packed with everything they needed to provide vaccinations, treat parasites and diseases, and perform up to 45 surgeries each day.

Every day, community members lined up with their pets in tow: dogs with porcupine quills embedded in their faces; cats who needed to be spayed; dogs with leg wounds. All in all, too many pets suffering from preventable infectious diseases. For the veterinary team, the days are long, often lasting from 5 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m.

“In many of these communities, the nearest vet may be 100 miles away,” says Windi Wojdak, RVT, director, HSVMA-RAVS. “We are frequently the only veterinary care these areas will ever see.”

During the week-long clinic at Cheyenne River Reservation, the team treated about 400 animals and performed about 200 surgeries—mostly spay and neuter services to help keep pet populations under control. Because so many people lack resources, packs of dogs roam the reservation, and infectious diseases like canine distemper and parvovirus are common.

“I feel that this is a too-often-overlooked aspect of veterinary medicine,” Cullman-Clark said. “Attending this trip reaffirmed for me the fact that helping people and animals who are really in need—who have no options for veterinary care—is my true passion.”

After the week at Cheyenne River, the team moved to the Pine Ridge Reservation for another week-long clinic where they treated 480 animals. Before the summer ends, more HSVMA-RAVS clinics will be held in North Dakota’s Spirit Lake, Fort Berthold and Standing Rock reservations, as well as the Colville and Quinault reservations in Washington.

“We want to help communities learn how, with the resources they have available, to provide the best care possible to the animals in their families,” Wojdak said.

For veterinary students, the experience offers something unique.

“Students get a chance to see animal care and life in other parts of the country where they wouldn’t normally have a concept of the scope of the challenges faced by families who don’t have access to basic veterinary care,” Wojdak said.

Some of the volunteers come year after year, taking vacation time from their jobs and working 16-hour days.

“You feel like you are making a real difference and learning at the same time,” said Cullman-Clark, who is 29. “You are helping people who really have no options. It was hard work, but I loved every second of it.”