(Dr. Heather Gunn McQuillan is a veterinarian in PEI who travelled with the Chinook Project to Sheshatshiu and Rigolet in 2014. This was her first trip, but hopefully not the last, with the Project. )
I just spent the last 10 days living out of a backpack with my seven-month-old daughter providing veterinary care to remote communities in Northern Labrador. It was an amazing adventure. It was an experience that will mold me for the future. It is a story that I hope to someday share with my daughter, so that she can understand the incredible journey we went on and the people we met along the way; people whose lives we impacted and who in return impacted our own. Emma will never remember this trip but I will never forget it.
The Dalai Lama says that at least once a year you should go somewhere you have never been before. While I believe this to be true I also think that at least once a year you should shake up your life in a radical way. I think it is important to step outside of your reality and see the world from a different perspective. The Chinook project trip did just that. This year, we responded to requests from three communities and sent two separate teams. Team one went to Nain and Sheshatshiu and team two met the first team in Sheshatshiu and then went on to Rigolet. My daughter and I were a part of team two.
We are in Rigolet. A family gave up their house for us; their entire home. They moved out so that Dr. Hopson and I could move in with my child. It’s nothing short of amazing. I have a playpen for Emma, but she doesn’t like to sleep in it. She’s co-slept with me since she was born and even though I’ve been sleep training her before I left for Chinook, now that we’re here it is just way easier to have her in bed with me. Morning comes early when you haven’t slept much. I crawl out of bed and still marvel at the generosity of strangers who have left a house full of food so that we could have breakfast. In a community where there hasn’t been a proper food shipment for 7 months, this is above and beyond. I head to the clinic. The others have gone for a morning walk on Rigolet’s beautiful boardwalk. I have my hands full. A playpen in one hand, a diaper bag in the other and a baby strapped to me. There aren’t many cars in Rigolet, but the 2 RCMP officers have a truck. They drive by me and pull over, offering to take the load off my hands. I hop into the truck with Emma and we drive to the clinic (don’t ask whether or not there was a proper child restraint system in the vehicle. I’ll never tell!). This is my first ever police escort and the officers are kind and jovial, even carrying in my bags to the community centre.
The others have already arrived and gotten the day going. I set up Emma’s playpen and get to work. She’s content on her own, so I start in-taking animals, helping the students with their questions and guiding them through processes. We’ve been on the road together now for several days, so they are old pros at the routine, and I can even take a moment to fix myself a cup of tea and take a breath. I do still scrub in with them for the surgeries as occasionally we hit a tough case. It’s interesting that in a small community how common some rare conditions are. Many of our male patients are cryptorchid (only 1 testicle descended) but given that there is a strong inheritance pattern with this condition, and that many of the animals are related, we shouldn’t be that surprised. It can be tricky to find a testicle when it’s not where it’s supposed to be. Additionally, there are a large number of patients with significant heart murmurs, making anesthesia more risky, especially given our “bare bones” set-up. After jumping in to help with a spay on an older female, I remark to the student, “Man, this may be the toughest spay I’ve ever done in nearly 10 years, so don’t feel bad that you’re struggling.” And it was true. Some of the spays are very challenging, as many of the dogs are large breeds with deep chests, are older, and have had numerous litters. I think the students feel some relief knowing that if they’re struggling, they have us here as a safety net and that we also think the cases are challenging. Medical appointments trickle in amidst the chaos. In this small hall filled with people and their pets, we talk about dermatology, urinary tract infections, allergies, heart conditions, end of life issues, and booster vaccines during wellness appointments. It’s been massively rewarding for me to come to an isolated community and provide a necessary service to people who don’t have access to regular veterinary care. It’s even more rewarding because it allows me to be in my element. My true passion is teaching and to be here helping the students learn in this setting is probably the best part of the project for me. The 12 hour day ends (one of our shorter days of the trip). We’ve spayed or neutered 15 animals, and seen double that number in medical appointments (including a house call to see a beautiful sled-dog team). I survey the hall. The students are tired but are being fed an incredible meal by our generous hosts, my daughter is asleep in the arms of a stranger who is rocking her and singing to her with the kindness of someone who loves her dearly, and I feel a warmth in my heart knowing that I got to be a part of this amazing experience. Along the way, the two teams have seen over 300 animals. The students and veterinarians have spayed or neutered over 120 animals, and the rest were medical appointments for a variety of conditions, including preventative veterinary care. What an impact these students have made in the lives of the dogs and the people in these communities.
Before I left for Chinook, I had met for lunch with two girlfriends that had both previously participated in the project. They had said, “We can’t believe you’re taking a baby on this trip.” Looking back, it might have been a crazy thing to have done, especially considering that I started planning to go before she had even been born. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend this as a family friendly adventure, it served as a testament to how good natured and adaptable that my baby is and the same holds true for the people in the communities that we served. What a special bond we now share. There are things from this trip that I want to take forward with me for her life and for my life as a parent; the need to slow down the frenetic pace, to simplify life in terms of what is important and what is not, the desire to connect to people and places, and to be more loving and peaceful on my journey as a mother and a human being. Life is short, the world is small and it’s important to take the time to meet the people we share this planet with. We need to learn their stories, understand their situations, and respect their circumstances. In the end, all we need is to be good to one another. And that is what Chinook is all about.