Planes, Boats, and Snowmobiles: DVM Alum Serves in Rural Alaska

Alaskan Chris Clement, DVM ‘19, graduated with the inaugural class of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and Colorado State University’s 2+2 Veterinary Program. After graduation, Dr. Clement returned to Alaska to practice small animal medicine and volunteered with CSU’s Community Outreach and Public Health Veterinary Outpost Program. Dr. Laurie Meythaler-Mullins, the Outpost Program’s resident veterinarian, interviewed Dr. Clement about offering a veterinary clinic by plane, boat, and snowmobile.

Why did you become a veterinarian?
I grew up in Sitka, Alaska, a small community on Baranof Island with 13 miles of road end to end. You have to swim, boat or fly to get there. During college, I worked with the town’s veterinarian, Dr. Burgess Bauder. I really liked serving in that community.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks when I decided to apply to veterinary school. There were no veterinary schools in Alaska, so I thought I had to leave my home state, which was hard because I wanted to practice in Alaska. I helped found the pre-veterinary club at UAF, and through that learned about the CSU-UAF 2+2 program. 

Tell me about your experience in the 2+2 program.
It was awesome to be a part of that first class. At UAF, the student-to-staff ratio is small, so our professors could personalize their teaching style to every student. Of course, seeing the same 10 classmates everyday could be challenging at times! We moved to Fort Collins for our last two years. It was an easy transition because the CSU veterinary students were so welcoming and the student population was really diverse. 

What did you learn about public health this summer?
From a public health perspective, the value of these veterinary outpost clinics cannot be overstated. Rabies is endemic in Southwest Alaska. There are staggering numbers of dogs who are not vaccinated, spayed, or neutered. Parvovirus wipes out litters of puppies. And there is a huge emotional toll on a village that has limited access to veterinary care. It’s hard to understand the challenges facing rural Alaskans until you work there. The physical constraints are very real. Without roads, you have to fly, boat, or snowmobile between villages. Financial constraints are a consideration as well, but rural Alaskans want and need veterinary care for their companion animals. 

What was it like to work in rural Alaska?
These communities showed us so much hospitality. Members of the community who have pets and utilize our services, as well as those who don’t, were very welcoming. They often are willing to help out, provide food and laughs, and are very appreciative. Although I was more of a last-minute add-on, the community of Aniak accommodated my travel and lodging, as well as many members provided food and even took us out for a boat ride on the Kuskokwim River. I also think this program highlights the diverse aspects of our profession. People often look at veterinary medicine through the scope of a small animal general practice, but many veterinarians I know of have changed career paths multiple times while still being a veterinarian. This program is a highlight of particular parts of shelter medicine, but still is a unique subset since it encompasses rural care, and not “rural” as in large animal medicine in small towns outside of urban areas, but true rural care with underserved and underrepresented communities in areas without access to routine veterinary services. 

What’s in your future?
This experience cemented my desire to eventually live and work in rural Alaska. And I know I want to serve underserved and underrepresented communities. This program inspired me to be creative in my approach to service. I may be volunteering outside of my routine job in small animal general practice in the city. I may not be able to work in rural communities full-time, pending the availability of such jobs, but I can still volunteer my services when I have time.