Taking Medicine To Reservations Without Agenda: Ted Robinson, DVM

The New Mexico dust storm pounded at their backs. Visibility dropped to a few feet. Grit and dust powdered Ted Robinson, DVM, and his crew.

 
But the horse wrangled into the middle of the field was ready for gelding and it would likely be another six months before the veterinarians could return to this remote and hard-scrabble Native American reservation. So the team tied raincoats together, created a temporary tent, made a cocoon over the patient and carried on.
 
“That was pretty interesting,” says Dr. Robinson, in his typically understated way of describing the work and adventures of his twice-a-year treks to the Hopi, Santa Domingo and Zuni reservations near Albuquerque, N.M. 
 
Interesting, indeed. Robinson’s work and dedication have so impressed the American Veterinary Medical Assn. that it chose Robinson for its 2008 Meritorious Service Award. The award will be presented this month at the AVMA convention in New Orleans.
 
The trips are service projects of Americans for Native Americans (ANA) and the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Assn. ANA is a Bucks County, Pa., organization dedicated to serving First American communities. 
 
Robinson, who also donates surgical hours at the Bucks County SPCA and runs a travel expedition business for veterinarians, says he is honored by the award and looks forward to New Orleans, but already feels plenty rewarded. 
 
Meeting and working with the people of New Mexico is both satisfying and fascinating, he says, noting that veterinary care is out of reach financially and geographically for these communities, scattered across the vast reaches of New Mexico.  
 
These are tribes that don’t have the glitter and cash of casino revenue, so they welcome the opportunity to improve the health of their livestock and hone their animal husbandry.
 
“They can have [veterinary services] if they travel to large centers like Gallup or Albuquerque or if they invite a veterinarian to come out to the reservations. But it’s a really big expense because they have to travel so many miles. And it’s Gallup and Albuquerque prices. Native Americans can’t afford that,” he says.
 
With an all-volunteer crew that typically includes about 10 veterinarians, several veterinary technicians, veterinary students, a handful of helpers and supplies and support donated by Fort Dodge Animal Health, Merial Animal Health, Pfizer, Henry Schein Animal Health, Schering-Plough Animal Health and Columbus Serum, the team works nearly non-stop for two weeks. 
 
On a typical trip hundreds of surgical and medical procedures are performed, including neutering, vaccinations, dental care and treatment for snake bites, parasites, valley fever, ehrlichiosis and fractures. 
 
Much of the work is performed in make-shift but surprisingly effective conditions, from that improvised raincoat cocoon to tailgate surgeries. A horse that tangled with barbed wire had its lacerated tongue repaired outdoors as a lightning and hail rained down. One clinic building equipped for their work is open only when they’re on site. Mobile units are assembled and driven to far-flung villages.
 
“It’s extremely satisfying to everybody who goes on these trips,” Robinson says. “You really feel like you’re giving back. Most of us who go out there are semi-retired people. We all feel strongly that veterinary medicine has been very good to us, and we all feel strongly that when we leave we’ve accomplished something and we can see what we’ve accomplished.”
 
Animal health is significant to Native Americans’ economy and culture, Robinson notes. The Hopi raise a unique breed of beef cattle and healthy, hefty animals bring better prices, so large-animal practitioners are sought for every trip. 
 
Early on, feral dogs were a huge problem, killing sheep and cattle or maiming them to the point that their hides and skins were not marketable. Now spay and neuter clinics are a big focus of every trip. Rodeo is important to the culture, too, so the team sees a lot of horses on each visit.
 
But it’s the memory of a middle-aged woman with an ailing sheep that sticks in Robinson’s mind. 
 
This woman’s one and only sheep was source of wool for the rugs she wove, and it was in desperate need of surgery to repair a uterine and rectal prolapse. Happily, the veterinary team happened to be on her reservation that week and saved the animal.
 
“She was going to go on making a living,” Robinson says. “At the end she was so happy she was crying.”
 
Such connections with the people and culture are just as important as the medical work, Robinson says. But they take time to grow.
 
“For centuries people have sent missionaries to these places with agendas of converting and doing things, so they’re very suspicious.

After a year or so they realized our only agenda was to help the animals. They’ve taken us in as family now. They invite us into their homes.”
 
Robinson and his team have even been honored with invitations to Kachina ceremonial dances, a rare privilege for outsiders. “It’s a real life-changing experience,” he says.
 
Actually, it was an interest in Kachina dolls that started the string of events that led to the project as it is today. Robinson was at a fund raising auction in 2001 that featured Kachina dolls and other Native American art hosted by Americans for Native Americans when the idea for a service project was sparked. Chatting with a tribal member attending the auction, Robinson was surprised to learn of the dearth of veterinary services on the reservations.
 
“I thought about it for an hour,” he recalls. Then Robinson headed back to the gentleman and asked if he could bring some colleagues to New Mexico for a two-day clinic. 
 
Since then they’ve gone twice a year, in two-week stints, begun taking steps to encourage the University of New Mexico and Native American youths to consider veterinary science and attracted the attention of British filmmakers who hope to document the project.
 
“I just went to see what type of Native American crafts they had,” he recalls of that evening seven years ago. “Now it’s exploded to a much bigger organization.” <HOME>
  

For information about participating in or contributing to the Native American Veterinary Services, contact Dr. Robinson at FANDR@VOICENET.COM.

 

 

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