Sled Dog Medicine Part I

This is a blog post that got a little out of control, so I split it into two parts - part I is about working as a sled dog vet in the Yukon, and part II is about working on La Grande Odyssée, a long-distance staged race in the French Alps.

In addition to working as an associate veterinarian at Alpine Veterinary Medical Centre, I have also volunteered for a variety of dogsled races since moving to the Yukon. The first race I worked on was the Percy DeWolfe, which runs from Dawson to Eagle, AK and back. I went on the Percy as a new graduate vet who had only been living in the Yukon for a few months. I wasn't very confident in my veterinary knowledge and skills at that point, but the race organizers hooked me by telling me that I would get to ride a snowmachine. "How do you keep from driving it into the open water?" I asked Rick Brown nervously the afternoon before I drove up to Dawson. "You just don't drive it into the water," Rick told me, which is pretty good advice for driving just about any vehicle.

 They look this cute, and then you have

My parka was insufficient, and my Sorel boots that I had purchased at the last minute were too big, and I am the sort of person who becomes proficient at things through stubbornness and fear of embarrassment if I quit, rather than a natural aptitude for acquiring new skills, so riding a snowmachine the 150 km up to Eagle was harrowing. But in working in the dogyard at 2 AM with sleepy dogs snugly nestled into their straw and sitting around a bonfire listening to mushers and the residents of Eagle, I felt like I learned more about dogs and about people in that weekend than I had a long time.

I work on the Percy as often as I'm able to, and have worked on other mid-distance races around the Yukon like the River Runner and Silver Sled. I've also worked on the Yukon Quest a couple times. I've learned a lot of valuable skills working on dogsled races. I love having access to the diagnostic equipment at our practice like x-rays, ultrasound and blood analyzers - these tools were invented because there's a lot of information about people and dogs that you can't get just from a physical exam alone. But working on a dogsled race where all you have is your hands, your brain, and two plastic bins filled with iv fluids and a few medical supplies, I've learned to pay close attention to the subtleties of a physical exam - what does it mean when a dog's temperature is elevated at 30 minutes as opposed to 2 hours after arriving at a checkpoint? What does it mean if the dog is sitting up and ostensibly looking fine, but its heartrate is 120 beats per minute? What does it mean if I apply pressure to the inside of the biceps and the dog doesn't yelp, but I feel a shiver travel up from its toes into my fingertips?

Dogsled races have also been a tremendous opportunity to spend time with and learn about people whose lives are very different from mine - kids living in remote Alaskan villages that number 100 people or less, young American soldiers that volunteer at the Two Rivers checkpoint in Alaska, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Toronto volunteering at the vet shack in Dawson. I think the one of the most important lessons I've learned from these people while working on dogsled races is "Some of the crap you worry about is stupid and doesn't matter," which, like "Just don't drive into the water," has nothing to do with dogs at all, but is important to remember when life becomes confusing or overwhelming.

Working on dogsled races has taught me a lot about trusting myself - that if my instinct is that something is going wrong, then trusting that instinct and treating the patient accordingly is always the best way to go, even when my self-doubt screams that I'm over-reacting. These races have also taught me a lot about trusting strangers - that if you're in the middle of nowhere and a dog needs help, people that you've just met minutes before will give absolutely everything they're capable of offering, even if it's just a warm room to sit in, a brighter light, or sitting with a dog and telling it stories so it doesn't have to feel lonely when its apart from its musher and team.

Part II coming later this week or next.

- Jess Heath