Not Your Typical Veterinary Clinic

May 21, 2015
by Charlotte Johnston

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HSVMA-RAVS veterinary student volunteers Millie Cates (c) and Charlotte Johnston (r) with a White Mountain community member and his two dogs.  Charlotte Johnston

I’m a final-year veterinary student studying at Charles Sturt University in Australia, and I had never heard of HSVMA or its RAVS program before I started looking for things to do while travelling in the USA. In my course, we are required to do a number of clinical rotations to garner a range of experiences, and I stumbled across HSVMA-RAVS in my hunt for experience that fit the guidelines for a clinical rotation working with veterinarians not in a ”traditional” private practice role. As I applied for a RAVS trip, I was unaware of the impact it would have on me, particularly on my appreciation and understanding of the human-animal bond. I did all the paperwork and background checks, arranged flights, and convinced my clinical supervisors that a RAVS placement did fit into the criteria for my clinical rotation and, before I knew it, I was on a plane to Phoenix, Ariz. to be part of the RAVS team at the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache Tribes clinics. The White Mountain clinic was primarily a spey*/neuter service, while the San Carlos clinic was predominantly for wellness check-ups to help meet the high demand for veterinary care in the community. The clinics were vastly different, and I learned many lessons from both.

From Empty Building to Fully-Functioning Clinic

A crew of 32 veterinary students, eight veterinarians, seven veterinary technicians, and four support volunteers met in Phoenix for the chance to spend their holidays helping the people and animals of the White Mountain Apache Tribe (WMAT). The WMAT American Legion Building located in White River was the location of the clinic for this trip. The hall was considerably smaller than the large gymnasiums for which the clinic had been designed, but in keeping with RAVS tradition, we made do with what the community could spare and we all set up the surgery tables, collapsible cages, cat tents, and everything else required for a functioning clinic.

After the clinic was set up and ready for duty, we still had orientations, dinner, surgical skills testing, and group assignments to do before we could go to bed. The general flow of the clinic for the next five days would be animal admission for spey or neuter surgery by the intake team, at which point the care of the animal passes to the anaesthesia team for induction, maintenance during surgery and recovery (while students performing the surgery work one-on-one across from an experienced veterinarian), then the intake team performs discharge and client education at the end of the day.

An Intensely-Rewarding Experience

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Ellen Reinke monitors a patient's anaesthesia for the canine spay Charlotte participated in as a student surgeon.  Charlotte Johnston

I was rapidly immersed into the fast pace of the clinic, which ran like a well-oiled machine. Students were quickly given jobs and responsibilities under the watchful eyes of the clinic leaders. I became so involved in whatever task I was given that I was almost completely unaware of the organised chaos around me. Occasionally, I would look around in awe of the clinic made up of so many parts, all busily working towards the same goal. Asking questions was encouraged, and the environment provided a wonderful opportunity for learning from each other and challenging ourselves. The students were rotated through intake, anaesthesia, and surgery to give a comprehensive experience of the clinic.

The following week I travelled to the San Carlos Apache Tribe for the wellness clinic. The new team was considerably smaller,` with only six vet students, three support volunteers, and six vets. We prepared for a clinic of working long days in the sun. Set up and orientation followed, and we were shown our sleeping quarters on the floor of a meeting room in the school gymnasium. On the first day, we started seeing community members and their pets from 7:30 a.m. There was a lot of interest from the community! People started queuing from 6:30 a.m., resulting in a full clinic schedule 10 a.m., and we did not finish seeing patients until about 7:30 p.m. On that first day, around 125 animals were seen.

At both of the clinics, many of the community members had to wait with their animals for hours in the hot sun before they could be seen, and yet they were still so grateful to us for treating their pets. Many people had to take time off work or get lifts with friends or family just to get to the clinic. Despite all our efforts, each day almost 100 people had to be turned away because we simply could not meet the demand. It was encouraging seeing the huge turnout of people eager to seek the best care for their pets who obviously meant a great deal to them, and yet disheartening to be unable to treat them all. With the great need in San Carlos, RAVS started making additional visits to the community and will return in June with a full surgery clinic.

I learned so much with RAVS, saw so many fascinating things, and had the privilege to work with amazing people and animals. I highly recommend RAVS to anyone keen to work hard, make friends and wanting a unique experience.

* Note: "Spey" is the Australian spelling of "spay."


Charlotte Johnston is a veterinary student in the class of 2016 at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia.