Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Superhuman vets are sled dogs' best friends

ROHN ROADHOUSE, Alaska - Fifteen sled dogs zigged, one zagged.

The one that zagged would be dead now - instead of standing on all fours, recovering and awaiting the return of its master - were it not for heroic efforts by a team of veterinarians here, deep in the mountains of the Alaska Range.

It was pure accident. But like anywhere else, accidents happen in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Three-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson was mushing his team into Rohn just before midnight Sunday when they were surprised by two mushers on foot, coming out to the trail to fetch water for their resting teams.

The trail makes many quick twists and turns in a thick stand of spruce trees leading into the checkpoint, and the speed of the team left little time to react. The dogs spooked, and one of the rear dogs on the team bolted the wrong way. The tremendous pulling force of the rest of the team slammed the wayward dog into a tree, severely injuring its neck.

"If it had happened even 150 yards farther out, we'd have lost him," said W. Brice Finney, a chief army veterinarian from Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He is on temporary duty and is among some 30 veterinarians from around the country who have volunteered to provide canine medical care during the 1,112-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.

The injured dog quickly was carried to a one-room log cabin near the Rohn checkpoint. No fewer than five vets huddled and hovered for three intense hours, trying to save its life.

The animal was virtually dead when the vets brought it inside, said Finney, a Special Forces veteran with extensive trauma experience. He performed CPR on the dog and noted a collapsed lung, among other traumas.

The vets positioned the dog so that its working lung would be on top, able to work. "That is when things started to turn around," the vet said.

Sled dogs and their care are everything in the Iditarod. Without the dogs the race would be nothing, which is why a gut-wrenching, child-in-the-emergency-room pall hung over the checkpoint in the wee hours of Monday morning, 272 miles up the trail from Anchorage.

Even as the emergency treatment unfolded inside the cabin, the scene outside was one of commotion and at times near-chaos with the night-time arrival of many teams among race leaders. Many mushers are running in darkness because of unusually "warm" zero-and-above weather. The dogs do better in colder temperatures.

Each arriving team's dogs, moreover, have to be checked by one of the vets to assure their condition to run.

In the end the vets were able to stabilize the severely injured dog, and Dr. Bob Sept, of Anchorage, flew all the way to his home clinic in an emergency evacuation on a bush plane. After X-rays and further examination at the clinic, it was determined that the animal had sustained a fractured neck vertebra, and another was compressed.

A surgeon was being consulted, but the dog was up and about otherwise, and was expected to recover.

"I'm a little numb now," said Kathleen Bailey hours later. "But just being a vet you get used to long hours and little sleep."

A vet from Canal-Winchester, O., Bailey helped work on the Swenson dog on the cabin floor. Like the others on the medical team, she had been up all night with the Swenson dog and the dozens of others that checked in.

Hours later she and another vet, Nick Vukich, of Green Bay, Wis., again would be on their knees on the cabin floor with another "dropped" dog, this one overheated. The vets packed the dog's inner legs in packages of frozen vegetables and set up a drip of intravenous solution to rehydrate it.

(Needless to say, nobody wanted to eat the frozen peas at supper that night).

"You don't count teams," Bailey said. "It gets too tiring." These vets were here to stay until the last of some 80 teams cleared Rohn. Then they would pack up and fly to checkpoints farther up the Trail to begin again.

After the Swenson dog was safe and recovering in Anchorage, Stuart Nelson, the race's chief veterinarian, checked in at Rohn to visit his vet team.

He thanked them for their response on the Swenson dog.

For the most part dog care on the Trail is routine, Bailey noted. Dehydration, overheating, sore shoulders or wrists, failure to eat and diarrhea are the typical causes for mushers to "drop" a dog.

Mushers typically leave Anchorage with 16 dogs, and they must finish with at least five in tow at Nome. It is common to "drop" dogs.

Dogs dropped along the way are cared for under veterinary supervision until they can be flown to Anchorage, where they are taken to Eagle River Correctional Facility for boarding. There, inmates care for the dogs until their masters return from the race.

Mushers have some bad times on the trail, too

Musher Roy Monk, an Englishman celebrating his 50th birthday on the Trail, started down a steep, icy descent from Rainy Pass only to find a disabled snowmobile and sled blocking the way.

In stopping his sled, Monk's team tangled its harnesses into a ball, and while he was sorting out the mess the team bolted, leaving Monk alone in the wilds. He started walking the rest of the 48-mile leg from Rainy Pass to Rohn when musher Emmitt Peters, the 1975 Iditarod champion, came along.

Peters, the Good Samaritan, gave Monk a ride, and they found his team three miles ahead. The sled had over- turned and tangled in some willow brush, stopping the team and leaving it in perfect running order, leader to wheel-dog.

Musher Max Hall, another Englishman, was bitten six times on the left calf and inner thigh by one of his dogs after it got a leg tangled in the gangline, the main towline.

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