Alex Soengkono, AVC 2019, traveled to Nain and Sheshatshiu in 2018 as one of the student participants on the Chinook Project. As part of the experience, the students craft various pieces of reflective writing.
I distinctly remember leaving for the Chinook Project hoping I knew enough. I had not had a great deal of surgical experience, a few cat spays and neuters prior to the rotation was all I had completed. I was nervous to start especially after hearing how busy the rotation would be. Looking back, this sense of insecurity was important as it made me more focused and eager to learn.
Many new experiences happened during my time in Labrador, including my first dog spay called “No Name”. She was a young stray who had been found beneath a shed and was brought in by the kindness of her rescuers. After her discharge, they described how touched they were by the work we had done in Nain. They decided to keep the puppy and name her “Chinook”. This was the first experience of many I had during my time on rotation that gave me a sense of purpose and appreciation for why we were here and the impact we were making.
With more experience, I found one of the toughest and most trying surgical procedures was mature husky spays. The dogs were deceiving, they appeared lean on the outside, but internally their abdomens were coated in thick, greasy fat. These dogs taught me about the importance of secure ligature ties. By the end of the week I had well developed calluses on both of my pinkies. At times I had a sense of uncertainty with what I was doing and looked to our instructors for guidance. My confidence steadily progressed from my first dog spay in Nain until Sheshatshiu where teams of two students did spays on our own. I became more efficient during surgery and aimed to decrease my surgical time. The learning curve was great, but I became more self-reliant as the procedures became more familiar.
I had the opportunity to learn about many surgical procedures in addition to routine spays and neuters. This included dentistries where I practiced regional nerve blocks for oral surgery. I watched my first abdominal cryptorchid castration and learned the steps to perform this procedure when I am on my own in practice. I identified a mammary mass during a medicine appointment, then had the opportunity to surgically remove a similar mass the next day. In Sheshshatshiu, there were a seemingly endless number of puppies (much to our delight) and we all had our share of pediatric neuters. In one such neuter, I scrubbed in on an abdominal hernia repair with one of the veterinarians. Each of these experiences taught me about procedures I had never seen in school during my rotations. I was impressed by how much we could accomplish despite having relatively few supplies and resources while maintaining a high level of patient care.
In addition to surgical skills, I learned a great deal during my medicine appointments. My communication skills improved as I conversed with a wide variety of clientele and the public. This included expressing the importance of spaying and neutering to a young boy who hoped to have kittens from his beloved cat. I had an emotional euthanasia conversation with a young couple who had grown alongside their elderly family dog. As our project attracted more attention the media arrived and I was asked to participate in a radio interview with CBC. This was something I never would have imagined I would be comfortable doing, but as I soon discovered, the Chinook Project teaches you not only veterinary medicine but also personal growth.
One of my most meaningful appointments was an older dog who was severely matted and osteoarthritic. Of all of the exciting surgeries we had performed, my time with this particular dog was one of the most rewarding accomplishments of the trip. I had been told he had suffered from matted fur for years. I had asked permission to perform a sedated groom but could not have anticipated the time, dedication and teamwork it would take to actually make this happen. After hours of multiple clipper blade changes and the removal of a significant amount of debris, feces and fur; we had successfully freed the dog of his matts and the relief he felt was immediately evident. One of the volunteers reached out once we had returned to Goosebay with photos. I was overcome with happiness when I saw him in a new sweater she had gotten to protect him from the outdoors. It was the perfect ending to a whirlwind trip to Labrador. My heart was full and I felt so much appreciation for the team I had been lucky enough to be a part of and the incredible opportunity the Labrador community provided to us. The Chinook Project gave me many new experiences in both medicine and surgery, an immense sense of fulfillment and a strong foundation for my future career as a veterinarian.