I can remember taking out my stethoscope to listen to a sled dog’s heart and lungs. It was near the end of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, and many of the dogs were doing well. Their mushers were keeping them remarkably well fed, and some dogs were even putting on weight as the race went on. Still, it is important to monitor each dog for any signs of disease including pneumonia. However, there was a problem. The problem was not with the dog, but with my stethoscope. It had frozen into a temporarily disfigured, pretzel-like shape that would make listening to any animal’s lungs quite difficult. If I had tried to bend it, it would have surely snapped. Alas, this is veterinary medicine in the Alaskan bush. The cold is a constant threat to everything up here, from the coldest veterinarian to the most well-conditioned sled dog to the largest moose. Apparently, stethoscopes are no exception.
The cold made it difficult to use lots of the equipment that we needed. For example, we scanned the microchips of all of the dogs at certain checkpoints to make sure that each musher was not illegally switching dogs out without us knowing. The problem was that our microchip scanners did not like to function once the temperatures started creeping around -10 degrees Fahrenheit. We solved this problem, at least partially, by keeping our scanners in an inner coat pocket until the last second we needed them. Our residual body heat kept the machines functioning for a minute or two, sometimes more, and we were able to get our work done.
Just like in any veterinary medical setting, we had to keep medical records during the entire race. We used weather-proof notebooks to accomplish this so that our records would not become ruined by the inevitable snow. Keeping records in this manner also removed the reliance on electricity, as we wrote everything in pencil. Of course, medical records should be kept in black pen and never pencil, but I do not know many pens that have functionally flowing ink when the temperature drops to the low negatives! The hardest part of medical record keeping was the actual act of writing. It is hard to write with large gloves on, so we had to shed a layer or two from our hands to get the adequate dexterity needed to write even partially legibly. The problem was that upon further exposing our hands to the weather, the cold would sink into our hands before we knew it and make them numb. It was like writing with a throbbing, painful stump of an appendage. Once the records were done, we would either shove our freezing fingers into our jackets and closer to our bodies, or we would find the nearest stove and sit near it to let our hands thaw. As our hands thawed and returned to somewhat of a normal color, we would commonly be found questioning our choices while also marveling at the beautiful wilderness that we were currently existing in despite the forces of nature.