Here I am again, sitting on the tarmac waiting for take-off. This would be my second trip to Nisichawaysihk Cree Nation, in one month. The previous month I had been up north to host a vaccination and health clinic for the community dogs, prior to following up with a bigger team for a spay/neuter clinic. Nisichawaysihk Cree Nation is based in Nelson House, Manitoba. To get there, we were flying with Calmair from Winnipeg to Thompson, and then driving approximately one hour into Nelson House. I chuckled as a few of my clinic comrades commented on the small plane. We were on an ATR, which is a “big plane” by northern travel standards. Some of the planes that I had flown on with Perimeter Airlines to more remote locations, were more commonly known as “flying culverts” by their passengers. They are actually a Metro, and I know this because my sister and brother in law are pilots, and were flying this particular aircraft at the time. One bucket seat per row, the plane is long and narrow like a culvert, and you feel every bump of the dirt runways that they land upon. Good thing I come from a family of pilots, because otherwise I don’t know I would be up for the task of all of this northern travel.
As we landed in Thompson, our core group of veterinary volunteers deplaned and collected our cargo: An anesthetic machine, medical supplies, surgical supplies, sleeping bags, food, etc. A group of volunteers had arrived with Save A Dog Network the day prior to start setting up our temporary clinic in the gymnasium of the recreation centre. After picking up spare oxygen tanks in Thompson (not exactly something you can pack in your checked luggage), we caravanned to our home for the next three days. There was still another wave of volunteers to arrive on the late flight that evening, but we wanted to get started as soon as possible.
The next few hours involved the completion of the clinic set up. Imagine a M.A.S.H style military hospital, except instead of a camouflage tent, you are in a gymnasium operating under a basketball hoop. Setting up a remote clinic such as this is no easy task. The Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association provides an extensive list of criteria which need to be upheld to ensure that no detail is left forgotten. Anesthetic machines, oxygen concentrators, and back-up oxygen tanks are just a few of the more challenging pieces of equipment to transport. Additional supplies including portable autoclaves for sterilizing surgical instruments, emergency drug kits, medication, bandage supplies, stethoscopes, casting material, the list goes on. However, before long we step back and realize that we have assembled a perfectly operational veterinary hospital in just a matter of hours. And just in time, because we already have at least twenty dogs that have been admitted and are awaiting surgery.
My memory may be foggy, but I feel like we probably started the first few surgeries around 4 o’clock. The rest of the vet team was to arrive by seven or eight o’clock so we were hoping to be fully functional by then. Though the location is different, the process for each patient is exactly the same as in a clinic setting. Every dog is examined completely before they are given a sedative. Some medical concerns may delay surgery to another day, while others can be treated at the same time as surgery. An intravenous catheter is placed, anesthesia is induced, and the patient is prepped for surgery. They are moved from induction to one of our two surgery stations where the enthusiastic surgeon (me) is waiting. Though we have plenty of electricity, I always wear a headlamp during surgery to help me see every detail. Once surgery is complete, the patient is recovered, given pain medication, and monitored until they are ready to be picked up by their owner. Every patient gets dewormed, vaccinated, a collar and leash, an identifying tattoo and any medical treatment it requires
It’s funny, when I read that last paragraph it all sounds so simple. And sometimes it is, but believe me when I say that we encounter all types of curveballs along the way. Whether it be a surprise hernia repair, an emergency hit by car case, a temporary equipment failure, a power outage, a litter of orphaned puppies, or a snowstorm, we see it all. The nights are late, and the mornings are early. We often find ourselves taking a quick nap on an air mattress in the corner of the gymnasium while we rest and digest from our quick supper break. And perhaps now is a good time to mention that we are so grateful to our volunteers who offer to FEED us during these trips. We have volunteers in Winnipeg that prepare huge batches of food that can be warmed up and served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not to mention the amazing meals that we receive in the communities. From moose meat stew, fresh bannock, shepherd’s pie and peppermint tea. The only thing warmer than the hot food delivered to our remote clinic, was the spirit of the residents of NCN themselves. And I can’t say that enough. When I think back to our time in NCN, I immediately see not only the faces of our canine and feline patients, but the smiling faces of Alex, Murdo, Wayne, Kim and Chief Moodie, just to name a few. It certainly warms the heart.
When all was said and done, we spayed and neutered 99 patients that weekend. Why not 100 you ask? Though time truly did not allow it, I prefer the following explanation: 100 is too round of a number. No one would have believed 100. But 99, now that’s believable.
By then the majority of the vet team had left and we were just a skeleton crew. The supervising veterinarian must remain in the community for twelve hours past the final surgery to ensure that if any complications are to arise, we are available for treatment. We also take on the responsibility of follow-up care for a period of time following the remote clinic. Our volunteers that were driving back helped us pack up the remaining supplies and dogs that were to go home for adoption. Some supplies were to be left behind for future clinics or transportation with Gardewine at a later date. As we left the gymnasium, the final threesome consisted of myself, Dr. Rebecca Zettler, and Save a Dog Network founder Katie Powell.
The hour-long drive back to Thompson seemed longer than ever, as we told stories to keep each other awake. As we arrived in Thompson we barely had time to grab food at the nearby McDonalds, drop off surrendered dogs at cargo to be loaded onto our plane, and the usual hullabaloo that is involved with check-in and security with veterinary equipment and supplies. Exhausted, sore, and maybe a little nauseous from our McDonalds we settle into the seats of our flight. The little puppy that we have is somewhat gassy, which is just as well, because it keeps a nice buffer between us and other passengers, and allows us to have the whole row to ourselves.
Another clinic done. Many more to do. But for now we bask in the warmth of the dogs saved, friendships made, and a heated plane that seems even more luxurious than it did on the first leg of our journey.
Written by Dr. Samyra Stuart-Altman