SACRAMENTO — Some of the best hands-on medical training for UC Davis students doesn’t happen in hospitals, or in private clinics.
It actually takes place in a forgotten row of rusted metal buildings in a tough part of Sacramento. There, students of the UCD School of Veterinary Medicine visit month after month and transform an old, vacant building into a bustling, highly organized clinic for the homeless and their furry companions.
On the second Saturday of every month, a few vets in training arrive early in the morning to set up what looks like an urban M*A*S*H unit to provide free medical treatment to hundreds of homeless pets.
The student-run, nonprofit program, called the Mercer Veterinary Clinic for the Homeless, sits just outside the Loaves and Fishes homeless shelter, 1321 N. C St.
They’ve been there for the community for almost 20 years.
“It’s such a big help,” said Paul Firestone, a homeless man who brought his four-legged pal Bridgett to be checked by the students Saturday. “I’ve been coming here for seven years and (the clinic has) always helped me.”
The help goes both ways, however.
While the homeless receive medical treatment for their pets — pets that many of them have developed strong bonds with during what can be an isolated life living on the street — the students also gain valuable experience treating patients in a real-life setting.
“It’s one of the few places where we do everything,” said Damion Walters, who is in his second year of vet school training. Walters coordinates the program with two other second-year students, who are solely responsible for running the program.
“It’s so satisfying,” added fellow coordinator Tarini Ullal.
Under the supervision of licensed veterinarians, students run routine diagnostic tests, treat common animal medical problems like ear mites, infections and minor wounds, and can even make referrals if an animal requires surgery, radiology or other advanced care.
According to Samuel Varon, the third clinic coordinator, it’s experience that students ordinarily wouldn’t get until their third or fourth years in the program.
“We definitely feel more prepared,” Varon said.
On Saturday, in addition to the regular care they provide to those seeking medical attention for their pets, the student volunteers also distributed their annual holiday baskets to every animal they saw, more than 130 in total.
The wrapped boxes are filled to the brim with food, medicine, brushes, toys and other gifts that the Mercer Clinic collects throughout the year for the homeless people and their pets.
The group also handed out clothing and blankets for the animals, a new service offered by the clinic and a vital gift for the pets and their owners during the harsh winter months.
Many homeless shelters don’t allow animals, which forces those who don’t want to part with their beloved companions to stay outside at night and endure cold and sometimes rain.
“Smaller animals, they have a more difficult time maintaining their body temperature,” explained Eileen Samitz, who coordinates the pet basket program through the Mercer Clinic. “That’s why we’ve developed the coat and sweater program because we know there is such a great need.”
But while the group has enough funds this year to provide the baskets, coats and sweaters, donations are needed to continue the program in future years.
Samitz and Dr. Laurel Gershwin, a UCD veterinary professor of immunology who runs the entire Mercer Clinic, say both the clinic and the pet basket program need donations.
“This is one of the few programs like it in the nation and it sets a great example of what can happen elsewhere,” Samitz said. “We’re looking for monetary help from the community so we can continue that (work).”
The group also has plans to install two pre-fabricated trailers next to the Loaves and Fishes shelter to offer a better and more comfortable place to see and treat patients. Any donations to the general clinic, Samitz added, would help the students meet that goal.
The volunteers keep much of their medical supplies and the equipment for the makeshift lab they’ve set up inside the open metal structure, but the majority of the treatment is done outside, next to the building, on plastic folding tables.
It’s not the ideal situation, especially during the extreme heat of the summer and the coldest and rainiest part of the winter, Gershwin said Saturday.
Monetary contributions for the pet basket program may be mailed to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Office of the Dean, P.O. Box 1167, Davis, CA 95617-1167. Make checks payable to the UC Regents-Mercer Holiday Pet Baskets.
A donation form to accompany the check and more information about the pet basket project are available at http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/clubs/mercer/donation_holiday.html or from Samitz at 530-756-5165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
General information about the Mercer Clinic is available at http://www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/clubs/mercer/donation/index.cfm.
General donations to the clinic may be made at any time by sending a check, payable to Mercer Veterinary Clinic, to the Mercer Veterinary Clinic for the Pets of the Homeless, P.O. Box 297, Davis, CA 95617.
— Reach Tom Sakash at email@example.com or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @TomSakash