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A Veterinarian of the North– Vanessa Gerber

Arriving at the airport with a small suitcase of scrubs and a stethoscope does not necessarily make you feel like a veterinarian, especially when you are a new fourth year student with a lot to prove. It does, however, make you feel like you are something: a fuzzy shape of a vet, lacking the definition that only etches in with time.

While sitting in the terminal, waiting for my team to arrive, I was keenly aware that though I had been anticipating this adventure for months, I still felt rather unprepared. The Chinook Project had never made a trip to this particular location before, and so I was nervous and uncertain. My expectations were fluid, ready to change direction at a moment’s notice. I was trying to mentally prepare myself for these changes as I boarded our first flight, when I was pleasantly interrupted by a glowing sunrise that quieted and warmed me; I had finally arrived where it was all going to begin.

Community Centre turned Clinic

It was not until we arrived in the community centre in Apex, Nunavut that the reality of what we were going to do set in. We were going to build a clinic. In our third year of vet school, when we do our first surgeries, the gleaming steel tables, packaged gowns and equipment are all laid out for us. Everything is ready and waiting for you to be a doctor; all you have to do is step in and play the part you’ve studied for years. Here this was not the case. If we wanted to be veterinarians here, we were going to have to build an environment in which that would be possible. We had six boxes of supplies, a community centre, one afternoon, and – thankfully — some very kind volunteers. Folded tables turned into surgery pillars, and a men’s bathroom sink became our scrub area, as box after box was unpacked and sorted. We worked well into the evening to create what was going to be our home for the next five days. When it was finally time to leave, I took one last quick sweep of our creation and felt a seed of confidence. We made this clinic… surely we were also going to make a difference. I had gained such purpose that afternoon—a rarity in fourth year, where every few weeks you find yourself somewhere new and only vaguely aware of where you are supposed to stand at any given moment.

Our first day of clinics seemed to hit the ground running and I briefly paused in amazement before scrambling after it. After 12 hours in our makeshift hospital, I still could not believe how incredible everything about it was. Each of the students had performed at least two surgeries and intubations, inserted multiple catheters, given many vaccines, and had even formulated and implemented our own anesthetic plans. Although one might assume that surgery would be every vet student’s proverbial mountain to climb, wider eyes than those of the student facing the responsibility of anesthetic drugs were not seen.

Vanessa and Dr. Pollard in surgery

The second day moved at a similar whirlwind pace as we evolved into students assisting students in surgery, where confidence really bloomed. Nothing provides quite the same powerful learning environment as working side by side with your equals. So many see competitiveness in this, but we saw opportunity. We learned from and with each other and always left the surgery suite encouraging one another. Being a small team of four students and three vets, it was guaranteed you would work with everyone at least once in a day, and each situation taught us something new.

By the third day, it simultaneously felt as though we had been there five months and five minutes. It was the height of our daily surgery numbers, with seventeen surgeries performed total that day. It was the most tired I had been yet on the trip, but we marched onward with full force; it was the only reasonable pace at the clinic. I spent the majority of the day in what was fondly referred to as “spay-land” (the entrance foyer into which we had managed to c ram a table, three people, and an anesthetic machine). As I rotated from surgeon to assistant to anesthetist, I marvelled at the pace and efficiency we had all developed as a team and as individuals in such a short time. Things we had fretted over and sweated about being graded on during third year, we were performing with ease at this point.

As the final day arrived, it was both hard and easy to believe the time had passed. I performed the last spay of our trip, and as I laid my scalpel down we all let out a cheer. We had done it. Five days of clinics. Five days of surgeries, of anesthesia, of physical exams and vaccines. In five short days we had gone from being unsure to being capable and confident. I felt like my fuzzy shape had become just a little bit clearer, it’s edges beginning to come into focus.

While boarding the plane home, I thought about the community we were leaving behind and how they could not have provided a kinder environment for a student veterinarian. Every person who brought their animal to the clinic was simply and wholeheartedly grateful. I was thanked multiple times and profusely — once for just a brief physical exam and vaccine. Perplexed as I was, later that day I reflected on how much veterinary care meant to the people here, and I reminded myself to retain that value and to remember it, knowing it will give me purpose in the moments that I will need it.

Arriving at the airport with a small suitcase of scrubs and a stethoscope does not necessarily make you feel like a veterinarian. But when you have just returned from the experience I had, it does make you feel like you are something, like you are definitely going to be something.

Vanessa Gerber, AVC 2017, traveled to Iqaluit in 2016 as one of the student participants on the Chinook Project. As part of the experience, the students craft various pieces of reflective writing. This is one of Vanessa’s pieces.

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