In her own words: A veterinary student’s summer in Alaska
Jessica Rupert is a second-year CSU veterinary student who spent her summer working with Dr. Laurie Meythaler-Mullins, community outreach and public health veterinarian in Bethel, Alaska, as part of the Veterinary Outpost Project in the southwest part of the state. Made possible by a $450,000 grant from PetSmart Charities, the veterinary care project is a partnership between the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.
June 15: Arrived!
Flying into Bethel was a strange feeling. It’s very remote, and I was arriving in a town of 6,000 people only accessible by airplane or boat. My host family for the summer was a wonderful couple, Victoria and Richard, and they have a sled dog team. Victoria finished the 2019 Iditarod. The first night I remember hearing the dogs howl at midnight, yet it was still bright light outside under the Alaskan midnight sun.
My favorite things about Bethel
The tundra is such a unique ecosystem. Filled with birds, moose, fish, and berries, it is vital to sustain life in Bethel and surrounding villages.
Subsistence fishing is a summer-long activity on the river. Fishing is a non-stop activity during the summer, so enough food can be stored for the winter.
We were busy organizing for our village trips and organizing our home-base clinic in Bethel. As a student, I found it fascinating all the details that go into making a veterinary clinic work. For example, where do we place things to be more efficient? What do we need to pack? If we forgot something, there was no local store or veterinary clinic we could head to for more supplies. We also had to watch how much weight we traveled with, as we were going to be traveling on small twin-engine airplanes with strict weight restrictions.
I attended many meetings and learned how the Veterinary Outpost Program works. For example, Dr. Laurie Meythaler-Mullins (above left) met with the Bethel Police Department (they also handle local animal control) to discuss animal care and rabies quarantine protocol. Rabies is endemic in Southwest Alaska, and unfortunately cases of rabid animals are common.
Dr. Laurie also met with the local human health care provider, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), to discuss our project and their work on rabies prevention. YKHC is one of the partners in the Veterinary Outpost Program, helping with villages contacts and travel logistics. We met with a local dog rescue, Bethel Friends of Canines, and listened to their efforts on addressing dog overpopulation issues.
And to top off the week, Dr. Laurie (above left) and I were interviewed on the local radio station, KYUK, to discuss our project.
On the frontier of vet med
We traveled to Aniak, a village 93 miles northeast of Bethel. All of our transportation in southwest Alaska between villages was on small twin-engine airplanes. It was my first time on these small aircraft and it was thrilling. The view from inside these airplanes is beautiful.
We arrived in Aniak with four totes. This was our veterinary clinic for the week, and with this “mobile clinic,” we completed 16 spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinated 50 dogs.
There are no veterinarians in these villages. Historically people here have lived very closely with dogs, using them for transportation and companionship. Yet without spay/neuter services available, dog overpopulation is an issue.
The importance of veterinary medicine in public health really struck me during my time in the villages. Rabies in endemic in this region, dog overpopulation is an issue; children here are bitten by dogs at a reported rate of seven times higher than the national average; and parasites, including echinococcus, can be transmitted between dogs and people. There are multiple human deaths every year from rabies and tons of prophylactic exposure treatment for people bit by dogs with unknown vaccine status.
The remainder of the summer we visited the villages of Toksook Bay, Hooper Bay and St. Mary’s. Our veterinary outpost clinic took place in a community center/bingo hall, a school, and a fire station. People brought their dogs on ATV’s.
Open clinic, open arms
As a student, I loved knowing that the practice of veterinary medicine can be taken anywhere. Members of the community were so grateful for our project, and we were asked multiple times daily when we could come back. We were welcomed with open arms: people gave us rides, volunteered, and made us dinner.
Our clinics were focused on spay/neuter surgeries, vaccinations and preventative deworming, yet since there are no veterinarians in these villages, we also treated fractures, lacerations, and ear infections. By the end of my time here, we completed 83 spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinated 200 animals.
There was a lot of one-on-one time working with Dr. Laurie. I learned the importance of communication, and remaining flexible and open to what the day may bring. We worked long days, ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, slept in sleeping bags (there are no restaurants or hotels in villages), yet given the opportunity I would absolutely participate again.