Local vet races to save dog during Iditarod

Jason Heezen stands at a checkpoint along the Iditarod course where he served as a veterinarian in March. (Photo provided by Jason Heezen)

Jason Heezen had applied to work at the Iditarod a few times during his veterinary career, but the timing had never quite aligned with his schedule as owner of Safe Haven Small Animal Hospital.

After entering semi-retirement last summer, the Plankinton native applied again and spent March in Alaska, where his quick actions in a medical emergency saved the life of a racing dog.

The approximately 45 vets selected from around the world spent a week in Anchorage prior to the race, training to make sure they were able to look for and treat medical issues quickly to keep the Iditarod moving. Heezen, who now works part-time at Creekside Veterinary Clinic in Mitchell, said during the race, vets would work in pairs in eight-hour shifts, in which time they might do hundreds of exams on dogs.

"A full exam on a sled dog should take a couple minutes, probably. So you've really got to hustle through," said Heezen, who has 20 years of experience working with hunting dogs and treating dogs with sporting injuries.

At about 2:30 a.m. on March 11, Matt Failor, a musher from Willow, Alaska, stopped in Takotna for his mandatory 24-hour break during his ninth Iditarod. When he arrived at the checkpoint and vets checked over his team, his dog Cool Cat appeared to be healthy, he said. Ten hours later, Failor noticed something was wrong when he was checking on his dogs.


"When I got up to Cool Cat — she was in the front half of the team — I just noticed that she was acting abnormally. She was dry heaving and nothing was coming out, and she was crying, whining," Failor told The Daily Republic on Thursday.

Failor called Heezen over, and when Cool Cat stood up, Heezen said he recognized almost immediately that the issue was likely gastric torsion, a "twisted gut" that Heezen said can be deadly if not treated within about 10 hours, with a dog's chance of survival decreasing dramatically after about six hours.

"They might as well be pet animals, but they're also athletes that we work with every day," Failor said. "It was really difficult, because I knew that it was a potentially fatal thing, based on what Dr. Heezen was telling me, and we needed to act very quickly. I was just impressed with how professional he was. He was not emotional; very direct."

Heezen took Cool Cat to the office in Takotna's community center, which was being used for the Iditarod, and put her on an IV, then took a large needle and poked it behind her ribs to relieve the gas that had built up in her abdomen.

"It literally sounded like someone just popped a basketball," Failor said. "... Air was just pouring out."

Heezen and another veterinarian in Takotna took action to get Cool Cat to a larger medical facility. She was moved on a Takotna local's sled, pulled by a snowmobile, to a small plane, flown from Takotna to McGrath, then from McGrath to Anchorage on a second, larger plane.

"It's pretty remarkable that this is one dog, and the Iditarod probably spent $10,000 transporting this dog to get her back to save her life," Heezen said. "There's quite a bit of controversy about dogs dying on the Iditarod because of miscare and all that stuff, and it's just not true."

Failor then awaited an update on whether the dog he'd had since she was a puppy would live through her fourth Iditarod.


"I had my team sitting there, and I had to try to find a way to wrap my head around not being distracted but taking care of the rest of my dogs — all of her littermates and kids were sitting there, because she's the matriarch of the kennel, so several of her children were in my team," he said.

A volunteer woke Failor up later and asked him to come to the office, where he was told Cool Cat had made it to Anchorage and had a successful surgery. He said it was even more impressive she had survived the medical emergency, which is often fatal even in situations with every veterinary resource within reach, because she faced the added challenge of being diagnosed in a remote Alaskan village.

"Over the years, I've seen many of these gastric torsions, and a lot of them just don't make it because they don't get the care they need in a timely manner," Heezen said. "... We were probably right at that six hours from the time we diagnosed it until Cool Cat was in surgery."

Heezen said the type of gastric torsion Cool Cat had doesn't have a known cause and wasn't related to her racing. It could appear in any breed at any time, he said. While dogs might be transported by plane if they're unable to complete the race for any reason, Heezen said he believed Cool Cat to be the only dog airlifted for a medical emergency during this year's Iditarod.

Cool Cat has made a full recovery and is now enjoying retirement, and Failor nominated Heezen and the other vet who assisted his dog for the Golden Stethoscope, an award given to one Iditarod vet each year.

Failor said of all times one of his dogs could have suffered from a twisted gut, mid-Iditarod might be one of the safest possibilities.

"If this would've happened at my home in Willow, she might've passed away, because I don't have a veterinarian on-hand, and I live about 25 miles away from the local vet," he said.


Dogs racing in this year's Iditarod rest in Takotna, Alaska. (Photo provided by Jason Heezen)

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