The Iditarod famously tests the endurance of mushers and their canine teams but “The Last Great Race” also demands a certain doggedness from its volunteers.
In March, as the first sled glided into the Finger Lake camp in Southern Alaska, Dr. Medora Pashmakova ’04 fell to her knees. For the next 24 hours, she and five other vets examined more than 1,000 dogs to make sure each was fit to press on.
Courtesy Dr. Medora Pashmakova ’04
“When I finally peeled off my layers that night, my knees were the size of grapefruits,” says Pashmakova, a professor at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “It was awesome!”
From Anchorage to Nome, the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail threads through steep mountain passes and over frozen lakes. It draws rugged competitors who have spent the last year training their dogs to haul a heavy sled at top speeds. It also attracts another sort of adventurer, one willing to throw schedules and comforts to the wind to toil through blizzards and bone-chilling temperatures.
This was the second consecutive year in which Pashmakova volunteered for the Iditarod, examining dogs before the race and at two checkpoints along the course. She got the idea from a colleague at Texas A&M who had done key research on sled dogs that develop ulcers. A former half-marathoner, Pashmakova liked that the Iditarod involved camping, culture, animals and long-distance competition.
Her first year exceeded expectations and marked the start of an annual tradition. She enjoys the downtime chatting with locals and the other vets, and then springing to action to care for the four-legged athletes. “You’re ready for anything, anytime, but have no idea when it will happen,” she says.
She is unfazed by the cold and bathing with disinfectant wipes and sleeping dormitory-like, six to a tent. Even the lack of cellphone service is a bonus, she says, freeing her to live in the moment for the seven days she spent on the trail this year (the race was over when the last-place finisher made it to the end; it took 13 days).
It couldn’t be more different from Pashmakova’s usual routine, where appointments at the small-animal clinic she runs at Texas A&M start at 7:30 a.m. and continue through 7:30 p.m. There, she divides her time between seeing patients, supervising residents, doing research and dropping everything when a crisis calls — such as an animal hit by a car or bitten by a snake (one of the hazards of southern Texas).
Pashmakova learned to be adaptable growing up in Communist Bulgaria, canning vegetables she and her family grew on a plot of land they owned outside of Sofia. The family immigrated to the United States when Pashmakova was 10, eventually settling in Troy, Mich., where her physicist father found a job developing semiconductors at an energy plant and her pianist mother taught and performed.
Drawn from an early age to stray cats and fascinated by the power of the human-animal bond, Pashmakova early on switched majors at the College from biochemistry to ecology, evolution and environmental biology (E3B) to prepare for vet school. During a summer internship at the New York Aquarium, on Coney Island, she studied the repetitive behavior of the walruses there, a sign of boredom previously documented in captive whales, dolphins and primates.
After graduation, Pashmakova worked at animal clinics in New York City before returning home to study at Michigan State for a D.V.M. She graduated in 2009, and after completing a three-year residency in emergency care, decided to explore a new part of the country. She took a job at Texas A&M, inspired by the TV show Friday Night Lights, which followed the lives of fictional high school football players in rural Texas.
Her colleagues describe her as someone who is as good with people as she is with animals. “Caring for patients that need you, and can’t talk, is less challenging than dealing with their human owners,” said Dr. James Barr, a vet at Texas A&M. “Medora is able to win their trust, which is necessary to do some of the complicated things that we sometimes have to do.”
Those things run the gamut, and can include treating animals for abuse and neglect. Volunteer work is one way that Pashmakova relieves stress. Another is making soap she sells under the label Scruffy Dog Soaps, tinkering with color and fragrance using the biochemistry she learned at Columbia. Her constant companions — two dogs and two cats (three of which were rescued from the shelter and are collectively missing an eye and a leg) — are also a source of comfort.
At this year’s race, Pashmakova treated dogs for pneumonia, among other illnesses, and next year hopes to add on-trail monitoring to her duties, to learn more about the dogs that develop an irregular heartbeat, putting them at risk for heart failure. Now, as fall approaches, she says she finds her thoughts returning to Alaska more often, anticipating the thrill of another great race.
Kim Martineau JRN’97, SPS’14 leads communications at Columbia’s Data Science Institute.
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