Volunteers assist the Navajo Nation’s Veterinary Mobile Unit
By Beth Zukowski
Dr. Jeff Myers completed a marathon of sorts this summer, beating his own personal best for the number of spay and neuter surgeries he could perform: that’s 42 in the span of just two days. The professor of veterinary technology at Colorado Mountain College volunteered for a program in the Navajo Nation, an area occupying portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. It’s a place that has long struggled with pet overpopulation. Access to veterinarians there is minimal, as are the discretionary funds to pay for such care.
The overpopulation was creating another and even worse problem that had a direct impact on human health: the inter-species transmission of Rocky Mountain spotted fever via infected ticks.
This was the impetus for the Navajo Nation to fund a Veterinary Mobile Unit, a fully-equipped clinic and surgery on wheels, that would travel all across the region to provide veterinary care and to spay and neuter pets for heavily discounted fees. The unit would travel throughout the summer with five full-time staff and a host of rotating volunteer doctors and veterinary technicians.
The Friends of the Aspen Animal Shelter provided some funding and helped spread the word locally to send area professionals to the sites.
When they heard about the program, Myers, CMC Professor Nancy Sheffield, CVT (certified veterinary technician) and Emily McCorkell, CVT and a 2011 graduate of the college’s veterinary technology program, jumped at the chance to help.
Myers and Sheffield volunteered for two days during the third week of the program in June. Sheffield explained, “On Mondays and Wednesdays, the team would perform exams, administer vaccinations and address flea and tick problems. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the people would bring back their animals for the spay/neuter surgery.”
The Veterinary Mobile Unit typically travels to two different sites within one week. These visits are widely advertised so that residents can plan to bring in their animals. The response has been overwhelming. “This is an area where usually there is just one veterinarian per 100,000 people,” said Sheffield. “It highlights what a big problem it is to provide care.”
Myers said, “This was unlike anything I’ve ever done. Usually the doctors get involved with all the prep, anesthesia and so on, but here, I just stood at the surgery table for 12 hours straight as a fresh animal was brought to me, prepped for surgery, anesthetized and ready to go.”
He compared the process to that of an assembly line. “You might think the quality of care suffers as a result,” he said, “but that was definitely not the case.” The full-time team “was not cutting any corners,” he added, noting how kind and gentle they were to all the animals, and how attentive they were to every aspect, including post-operative pain management.
The impact of the program can be seen in the numbers. Myers said, “At the rate of about 50 spay and neuters a week equaling 600 animals over the summer – each one of which could have two litters a year – that ends up being some logarithmic number.” These are numbers that the Veterinary Mobile Unit team hopes to take back to the tribal council so that they can continue the funding for next year.
McCorkell, who is employed as a certified veterinary technician at Alpine Animal Hospital in Carbondale, travelled with her colleague Dr. Louise Marron to meet up with the unit in Sanders, Ariz. Her role was to help the team prep the animals for surgery.
McCorkell said she was enriched by the experience, and emphasized the importance of volunteering for programs like this. “These people really needed this and these animals really needed this,” she said.
Myers said, “You don’t have to travel far to do good. The Navajo are our neighbors and they reached out to us for our help.”