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The doctor is in the van

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Published Monday, December 19, 2011

Her van is running and stocked for veterinary care, but Dr. Leia Cunningham's Nunavet business won't be a full-time operation for about a year-and-a-half, she predicts.

That's because her husband, who has his own practice in British Columbia, needs time to make plans to move to Nunavut. In the meantime, she'll be travelling between B.C. and Iqaluit with their newborn baby.

"I've always wanted to come back and open a veterinary clinic here," Cunningham said. "The plan was to open a clinic in my parents' house in Apex, but the overhead costs for building a brand new veterinary clinic are pretty significant."

So when someone suggested running a clinic on wheels, the Nunavet van made sense.

"There wasn't much in Canada," she said, "so we found a company in the United States that specializes in them; this is all they do. They designed this van for us and sent it up on sealift."

Cunningham has been offering mobile veterinary services to Iqaluit pet owners since Nov. 9, and did so until she left Dec. 17 for a few weeks to be with her husband.

"I'm really enjoying going to people's houses. It's a lot less stressful on animals, especially for cats. Cats don't like going into crates and going to the doctor's. It's really nice to be able to go into people's houses and do my physical exam and chat with owners in a relaxed, familiar environment."

If necessary, Cunningham will bring animals into the van, which is a fully-fitted surgery facility.

"We have the surgery table in the back, with an anesthesia machine," she said. "We do have an X-ray machine and digital X-ray processor, but our protective equipment is not in yet so we haven't been able to make use of the X-rays. We have a little lab set up for looking at samples under the microscope. I've got three emergency cages for any of the dogs that need critical monitoring or ICU-jj type attention, like on IV fluids or frequent medication."

She can also do blood work and dental work, but that hasn't been a priority as she focuses on spay or neuter and emergency services, which have been keeping her busy.

"It's incredibly important," she said of spay and neuter services, which she plans to offer to newly-adopted animals from the humane society, "because of the overpopulation issue up here. It's just a matter of offering an easy solution. I want to do as many as I can.

"I want to increase the standard of care for animals in Nunavut. There are a lot of animals suffering and dying for relatively minor injuries or ailments, and having a vet up here can function in two ways: to prevent needless suffering and death due to injury; and to introduce the concept of preventative health care to catch diseases early."

Having a veterinarian is important to the North, she says, recalling an incident from when she was young.

"I had a pet run over by a car when I was nine years old and we couldn't do anything," she said. "If there had been a vet here, the outcome may have been very different."

She typically performs surgeries on the weekends and takes appointments during the week, with the exception of Monday, which is her day off.

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