Courtney Post: Welcome to Let’s Vet Together. I’m so excited today to be sitting down again with Dr. Russell Miller, my friend and owner of VO Vets, and he can add to his resume, staff veterinarian to The Iditarod. Today, we’re going to talk about that experience, Russ. We’ve already done this once about what you could possibly expect and anticipate. How do you prepare for that life-changing event? Today is hearing actually how it went and what you walked away with, and all your crazy stories. Welcome back to the podcast. Let’s start there. Tell us from the beginning what it was like flying into Alaska.
Dr. Russell Miller: I want to start by saying thank you for letting me come back and to tell this part of the story. It was a phenomenal opportunity and experience. It was a two-week adventure, the first week flying into Anchorage and being teamed up with other veterinarians. The first week is really designed to cover the contained education section. The contained education section is learning about the different diseases or situations that you could find yourself in. Those diseases could be, for example, rhabdomyolysis, laceration repairs, cardiac conditions.
That continued education opportunity allowed– We don’t see a lot of certain diseases down here in Fort Worth, Texas that you would see necessarily up there, but there was a lot of similarities. It was cool to be able to learn about even ER, GP, some of the things that that they experience up there that we can utilize down here. The first few days, we’re doing the continued education. We’re going out with the other veterinarians to do physical exams on all these sled dogs, and also getting the chance to meet the different mushers. Being my first time going out there, not necessarily sure, what am I getting myself into?
What is this? What is the relationships? The seed, the bond, the love that those mushers have for those dogs. You’re doing so many physical exams and you’re asking them, “Hey, how’s your dog doing? What are things you’re seeing?” They’re like, “Hey, this pup here may have a little abrasion on his paws. Are there any recommendations? Is this something we should be concerned about?” Just to develop those relationships and learn the difference about things that you’d be treating and diagnosing up there is pretty cool.
Courtney: Just to back up for non-Iditarod listeners, a musher is the driver of the dog sled. This is the owner of the dogs. Do they own all of the dogs or is it like horse racing where you may have someone else who owns the dog and someone else who’s racing the horse? How does that work, Russ?
Russell: To my best understanding, majority of them own all their dogs. Now, occasionally, those mushers are friends with each other. If one year a musher’s not racing essentially, what they’ll do is they’ll have another musher, another friend go through and actually race their dogs.
Courtney: Oh, wow. Teams of how many dogs? How many dogs were on each team?
Russell: If I recall correctly, you can have up to 16 dogs on a team.
Russell: You have to cross the finish line with six dogs. That’s a must.
Courtney: Interesting. Along the way, if your dog became ill or has an injury, which I certainly want to hear about your treatment of some of these and how you moved along with the race itself, but you can actually finish the race with less dogs than you started with. In most cases, that always happens?
Russell: Yes, it’s promoted, because you think of it, so they start in Anchorage and as they’re coming across the different checkpoints, and how we got to those checkpoints, because you’re not taking roads, you’re flying in. A group of us veterinarians, trail crew, the communications group flew into a location, whether it was McGrath. When we flew in and we’re setting up a location the day before the dogs are coming through at that checkpoint, that was an awesome opportunity to actually meet people from across the US. Example, one of the trail crew volunteers was actually finishing her PhD in Michigan right now.
Something that’s completely non-veterinary related, but she just loves the dogs and loves volunteering. We set up for the checkpoint. The first team that I got to interact with, you got your dogs that come across, and one of the dogs is actually in the sled. I’m like, that’s interesting. Then I walked up and I asked him, and he said, “This pup here, she’s off. She’s a little bit slower. She’s not feeling her best.” We’re going to go through and say, what’s best for the dogs? Essentially, what he did is he was on the trail. You’re only as fast as your slowest runner, essentially. He pulled the team aside, put the dog directly in the sled, drove to the next checkpoint. At that point, he went through, signed care over to us, and then he went on with his team.
Courtney: That is a new Iditarod fact for me. I didn’t know that along the way you just might have dogs on your team that fall out. Makes total sense. Obviously even more important for the veterinary team to be there to care for that animal at that time.
Russell: From those return dogs essentially, you want to– One, it’s all about the dogs, just doing what’s best for them. If a pup’s not feeling well, or let’s say they’re developing stress-induced diarrhea, or they’re just not their fullest ability, it’s best to automatically stop, bring him to the next checkpoint. At that checkpoint, we do our physical exams, we provide necessary medications for them. Then they have volunteer airplanes that will take them back to Anchorage.
Courtney: Oh my gosh.
Russell: We’ve got veterinarians throughout the entire trail. You have critical care veterinarians that volunteer as well. The whole point is just making sure that they get the care they need.
Courtney: It’s amazing. We have one dog that came in on a sled not feeling her best self. Medically, what else did you see, Russ?
Russell: Medically, it was very fortunate. I honestly just saw some dogs that were just tired. A little bit tired or they’re having a little bit of diarrhea. There was a couple of dogs that had passed through that had what’s called rhabdomyolysis. It’s essentially when you’re running and you have muscle that’s starting to break down a little bit or they get too hot. When you’re running in Iditarod, the ideal temperatures are usually below zero degrees.
You want to run the cooler temperatures. As dogs are just running, there’s a lot of heat. We were fortunate enough that the temperatures were a little warmer than usual, and that does make it a little bit concerning because the temperature is a little bit warmer, the dogs when they’re running will actually reach down and grab the snow. They were doing it to cool themselves down. If you have that over and over, you worry could they potentially get an aspiration or pneumonia?
Courtney: Oh, yes. Just all that water going in.
Russell: When they come in for the checkpoint and you’re doing your physical exams, you’re listening to the heart, the lungs. Do you hear anything, are they coughing, are they sneezing? That’s another thing because the mushers are like, “Hey, doc–” they are so in tune with their dogs. They’re like, “Can you come and look at my dog real quick?” You may have looked at it 30 minutes ago, and they’ll go, “I want you to look again, just verify.” I’ve got videos of these dogs. They are so eager to run that they had to put mandatory 24-hour checkpoints of stopping and resting the dogs, which is great because it–
Courtney: It’s great. It’s like a kid waiting to go outside and play in the snow for the first time. They’re just behind the door ready to go.
Russell: You’re exactly right.
Courtney: Oh, that’s wild. We would love to include some of your video on the website and when we post the podcast. If anyone wants to check out, we’ll put it on the YouTube link too. That would be really fun for folks to see some of that footage, Russ.
Courtney: What did you personally walk away with? What was this like from a personal development, kind of a moment that you’re stepping outside of your day-to-day, not going into your practice every day, and the bustle of your team and your life, and your clients that you are really, again, in a place you’ve never been, doing something you’ve never been? I would imagine you were busy, but probably not at the pace that you work at every day.
Russell: Correct. A big thing I took from that, and I find myself consistently saying this, is becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. You’re in the middle of nowhere. I don’t have the appropriate type of cell phone satellite service that they have there. Most of these locations don’t have WiFi besides what the comms team needs. It’s shutting down all social media, your personal social media, personal contacts, and such. It allowed for me to just really reflect back on what’s important to me, my family, and my future goals, whether that’s personal goals or goals with VO. That was a pretty good opportunity to just to shut everything down and just see what I want as a person, as a veterinarian.
Courtney: Where were your moments of struggle? In that two weeks, did you have those moments that you’re like, “Ugh, this is hard for me, or I’m ready to go home, or I’m frustrated”? Where did you find your moments of struggle?
Russell: Sure. As a veterinarian, in let’s say practicing there, as they say, the lower 48, my every day practicing in the clinic, there are times when I find myself in control of a situation. I control how I treat cases or work them up, and be flexible with clients, and I feel like I have way more control in every day, but when I’m out there, it’s being very, this is the obstacle here, this is what our options are. I just need to go with the flow of it and then see what the best outcome is.
Courtney: As a fellow control freak, that would be very hard for me too, Russ. That’s what I’m hearing you say. There’s something really also freeing about that, when you can accept that you are not in control of the situation and yet you can respond to it but you don’t have to control it. I recognize that that would have been a challenge for me as well.
Russell: For sure.
Courtney: What did you bring home with souvenirs?
Russell: Souvenirs I brought home?
Russell: Memories is number one. Photos, videos. I try not to be a huge materialistic individual. I’ve got a couple of coffee cups, and I’ve got a patch for The Iditarod.
Russell: For me, it’s a lot of the memories.
Courtney: Do you have any pictures up in the practice? Are you going to have some really awesome picture of you with all the mushers, or you with some dog in a sled team that you’re going to put up in practice?
Russell: You bring up a good question about the pictures, because at one point I did have a little bit of WiFi and I got an email from the practice manager. She said, “There is an elementary school in Ohio that every year they put on their own little Iditarod in their elementary school.” They go through and they’ll take this stuffed animal dog, Husky, and they will hide it somewhere in the school. The students will find the dog, and then the students get to go through and essentially say which mushers are their mushers, and essentially following them throughout the trail.
This teacher had asked me, she goes, “Do you mind answering some general questions?” I was like I’d love to. I came out and I answered some general questions. For example, somebody was like, “Do the dogs get veterinary care?” I was like, “You bet, the dogs get veterinary care and they get fed multiple times a day, and so forth.” Then one of them was like, “My favorite musher is Jed.” I looked over and I was like, “That’s Jed.”
Courtney: Oh, wow.
Russell: I walked over and I was like, “Hey, buddy.” I explained the situation to him. I was like, “These kids are absolutely– They love what we’re doing up here.” I was like, “Do you mind if we get a photo together and I’ll send them back to the school?” He was like, “I’ll do it for the kids.”
Courtney: Oh, that’s awesome. That is awesome. Were you at the finish, Russ?
Russell: I was not at the finish. I was right at the very beginning. I got to see the start of the race and was able to go through and be right about the third of the way.
Courtney: Did you work with the– the person who won, and I remember reading this, so refresh my memory, I think, were they third-generation Iditarod winners?
Russell: If I recall correctly, I remember his grandfather’s the “father” of The Iditarod.
Courtney: So wild.
Russell: He was the original.
Courtney: Did you get to work with him or any other of the winners, whoever placed in the top? Just curious if there is a different dynamic between the experience level or the excellence level. What did you see from an athlete perspective, or from the strategy of these mushers?
Russell: Every musher has a little bit different strategy. It’ll vary depending on the weather. Is it snowing, how cold it is, how warm it is. When the mushers are competing in the race, there’s really three primary goals they have and they can pick from. To finish the race, to be in the top 10, or to try to win the race. Each musher has similar but a little bit different plans.
Of course, strategies are varying depending on the different obstacles that they come across. I would say the top five mushers may have taken their 24-hour checkpoints further on versus mushers who are taking more time or needing more time to complete the race. Those are the ones that I interacted with, and even the mushers that are just there, they love it they want to finish the race, and the quality care that they’re providing their dogs is amazing.
Courtney: That’s part of the experience. It’s not just about winning it. It’s like there are folks that win marathons and there are folks that can say they’ve completed a marathon. The Iditarod is that, in different mindset that you have going into it.
Russell: I want to stress, these dogs are literally ultra-marathon runners. I’ve seen the classic herding, the Heeler or the Border Collie, who’s got all this energy, and then I saw these dogs and I’m like, this is a whole different level.
Courtney: A whole different level. How many times a day do they eat to keep that level up?
Russell: That’s a great question. At least hree times a day. I mean they’re burning more than 10,000 calories a day.
Courtney: Oh, I’m sure. That’s wild. Where did you sleep, Russ? Were you cold?
Russell: I was in a very fortunate opportunity. Very fortunate. When we flew into McGrath, we actually had a log cabin.
Courtney: Wow, nice.
Russell: That doesn’t happen very often. I got very lucky. It was like a lottery getting that location.
Courtney: With that checkpoint that you got, just to clarify, because you got that checkpoint. You had a log cabin. There were veterinarians with different checkpoints that got a tent.
Russell: They slept outside.
Courtney: Oh my gosh.
Russell: My location at that log cabin, I’m more than happy to share some photos of that, it has essentially bunk beds. For the first two days we’re there, we were sleeping in bunk beds. When the dogs are coming in, they’re coming at eight o’clock in the morning, two o’clock in the afternoon, two o’clock in the morning. That point, you are on shifts, rotating back and forth with the other veterinarians. We’ve gone out, we’ve checked in on the dogs. We’re using GPS trackers. We’ll watch the teams come in. I was like, “We’re not going to see a dog for another hour. I’ve done literally how many physical exams in all these dogs, so I’m going to go sleep in that corner over there.” They’re like, “Okay.”
Courtney: Says the experienced ER doctor.
Courtney: Dr. Russ Miller knows how to catch sleep when he needs to.
Russell: That’s right. Then I’ll be like, “Just wake me up. If I snore, don’t worry about it.”
Courtney: Will you do it again? What is the experience like? Is this a next year? Is it, 10 years from now, I want to do it again? The veterinarians that you worked with, how many of them will repeat to the program, and what’s your plans?
Russell: I was fortunate. There are only a handful of rookies usually accepted. Most people, once they go out there and they’ve experienced it and they’ve said yes, this is for me, most of them are for life. They come back every year. I 100% am going to apply for the summer to be able to go back again. Once the application’s accepted, they were more than happy with the work we were doing out there.
Courtney: Very exciting. What’s the one thing that you wish you would have done different? If you look back and you’re like, “Oh, I wish I did that, or I wish I did this differently.”
Russell: Sure. I’ve got to say, they did a really good job preparing us with equipment and such. They’re pretty transparent on the different things that could occur when you’re out there. I don’t have a whole lot that I would do different.
Courtney: That’s great. No regrets? That’s the best way to come back.
Russell: Next year, if I can find a way to do it, go longer than two weeks.
Courtney: All right. That’s fair. Not enough time.
Russell: Yes, not enough time.
Courtney: We’re at VO Vets coming to you from Alaska soon enough. 10-year plan.
Courtney: This was awesome, Russ. Thank you. Thank you for sharing this experience with us. I can’t wait to see some pictures and videos. Please send them over. Someday when you go back, we have to do a live recording from Alaska. That’s my dream for the Let’s Vet Together Podcast.
Russell: Again, if there’s any veterinarians that are interested more in the Iditarod please feel free to reach out.
Courtney: Awesome. Russ is available. Obviously, his contact information we’ll provide, but if there’s anyone else that would ever be interested in volunteering, and it sounds like non-veterinarians can volunteer as well.
Russell: Oh, it’s completely, there’s so many non-veterinarians up there volunteering.
Courtney: What a really great experience.
Russell: I met a lot of technicians up there as well.
Courtney: That’s awesome. Talk about a growth opportunity, right? It’s part of our Suveto pillars, you can put a checkmark in your growth box for the year. Like, you did it, Russ.
Courtney: It was great seeing you. Thank you.
Russell: Thank you.