North

Alberta veterinarian waiting on travel exemption to practice in N.W.T.

Many in the N.W.T.'s South Slave region rely on Dr. James Stickney, a roving veterinarian based in High Level, Alta., for their pet's checkup appointments. The territory has limited travel across the N.W.T.-Alberta border for non-essential workers, including veterinarians.

Dr. James Stickney treats hundreds of furry South Slave, N.W.T. clients in his trailer

Dr. James Stickney checks on one of his little patients in his mobile clinic. The veterinarian, based in High Level, Alta., travels up to the Northwest Territories at least once every six weeks to see hundreds of his furry clients. (Submitted by James Stickney)

Sydney Danielsen found her cat Mew unmoving next to his litter box, covered in urine and vomit over the Easter weekend. 

Danielsen scrambled for the next few hours to find a way to get Mew to her veterinarian, Dr. James Stickney, in High Level, Alta. She would normally do the three-hour drive herself, but she thought the risk of contracting coronavirus could be too dangerous for her and her 13-month old son.

Luckily, her father agreed to take the cat and complete the mandatory 14-day self-isolation alone after the trip. 

"I'm pretty sure I just cried for three hours until I heard he was in the vet's arms, hooked up to the IV and meowing," Danielsen recalled. 

Mew was diagnosed with an upper urinary tract infection mixed with crystal formations — a common but painful condition for male cats that could cause serious harm to the kidneys if not treated within 48 hours. 

Mew was diagnosed with an upper urinary tract infection with crystal formations over the Easter weekend. (Submitted by Sydney Danielsen)

For many in the southern N.W.T, a trip to High Level for veterinary care is faster and more convenient than driving at least six hours to Yellowknife. 

That is, until the coronavirus pandemic. 

Veterinarians not essential workers in N.W.T.

Stickney drives up in a trailer to Hay River and Fort Smith, N.W.T. at least once every six weeks to check in with hundreds of his furry patients from across the territory. 

Every time, Stickney parks along Hay River's Mile 5 service road next to the local U-Haul station. A small sign goes up in front, reminding residents that the vet is in town. 

Stickney offers check up appointments, prescription refills and pet food for his patients at his clinic. 

Stickney stands on his mobile clinic. (Submitted by James Stickney)

Stickney's last visit to Hay River was in early March, a few days before the Northwest Territories effectively closed its border to all non-essential travel.

Veterinarians are listed as essential workers at both the federal level and in the province of Alberta, but not in the N.W.T., so they are not exempt from the territory's public health order.

Dr. Stickney said he has applied for an exemption to the travel ban so he can meet his N.W.T. patients — but has not heard back from the territory. 

"I think they'll allow me to come north," Stickney said. "I've made my case that it's probably far safer to have one person cross the border and back than it is to have a number of clients travelling back and forth." 

Stickney said the territory asked for information on his practice's sanitation habits and for any plans on protecting employees, clients and patients.   

Since the pandemic started, Stickney estimates he has seen 10 patients every week that have travelled from the N.W.T. to High Level for appointments. 

Mike Westwick, a spokesperson for the territory's Department of Health and Social Services, said some veterinarians have applied "to have their practice's situation considered," but did not elaborate on which businesses had applied. 

He encouraged veterinarians to contact Protect NWT if they are looking for travel-related accommodation. 

The department did not reply to CBC's follow up questions to find out why veterinarians are not considered essential service workers. 

Outdoor check-ins, longer appointments during COVID-19

Before the pandemic, Stickney said he would welcome between six and seven people into the trailer at one given time. 

Now, he said the mobile practice has gone through some modifications to respect physical distancing, including an outdoor check-in system where owners stay in their cars to register their pet's appointment. 

Dr. James Stickney brings this trailer from High Level, Alta to Hay River and Fort Smith, N.W.T, at least every six weeks to see patients. (Submitted by James Stickney)

Stickney said he is also going to space out appointments to give each animal more time in order to respect physical distancing. 

"It'll mean longer hour days," Stickney said. "I've always had a policy to not leave the [territory] until everyone who wants to be looked at has been looked at."  

Stickney said he also offers tele-health appointments for his patients. 

'Animals are just like our family'

Mew needs a follow up appointment in six to eight weeks to monitor his urinary tract, his kidneys and to take a blood test, Danielson said.  

She said if Dr. Stickney cannot come up to the territory in the next two months, her father will have to do another 14-days of self-isolation — increasing, once again, the risk of bringing the coronavirus home. 

Veterinarians should "definitely" be considered essential workers, Danielsen continued, because they take care of people's family members. 

"When my cat went down, it's like a member of my family went down," she said. "Animals are just like our family." 

Stickney said he is hoping to get the green light from the territory so he can come to the N.W.T. in mid-May.

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