Every winter, instead of flip-flops and a beach umbrella, U.S. Army Maj. Christine Christensen opts for a fur-lined coat, several feet of snow, sub-zero temperatures and dozens of sled dogs.
Christensen takes her vacation from the Joint Pathology Center’s Veterinary Pathology Residency Program in Silver Spring to tend to sled dogs in the 21-day Yukon Quest and the 14-day Iditarod —1,000-mile races more than 4,200 miles away.
Christensen, who has been on active duty for 12 years, was stationed at Alaska’s Fort Wainwright Veterinary Treatment Facility when she was introduced to the Two Rivers Dog Musher Association in 2003. Since then, Christensen has served as a trail veterinarian three times for the Yukon Quest (twice as the pathologist) and twice as a trail veterinarian for the Iditarod.
“I wanted to be a vet since I was in kindergarten,” Christensen said. “I like the challenge of the work; I like problem-solving; I like to be able to help people; [and] I like to give comfort.”
Christensen’s husband, Dave Christensen, traveled with her when she was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, for three years. He was a stay-at-home dad for their two daughters, Raina and Maggie, and brought the girls to visit in 2011 when Christensen was working the Yukon Quest.
“She’s a great veterinarian, she loves animals and she loves Alaska, so this was kind of the perfect hobby or a calling,” he said. “It’s just been great for her. It gives her something to look forward to and a way to stay connected to Alaska — we both just really miss it.”
As a trail vet, Christensen gives wellness exams to as many as 200 dogs each day. As a pathologist, she performs autopsies on dogs who don’t make it, although Christensen said this rarely happens. She said the Yukon Quest has about 12 vets at every checkpoint and one pathologist, while the Iditarod has about 40 vets at every checkpoint and two or three pathologists.
“It’s much more fun to be the trail vet,” Christensen said. “An arctic-conditions autopsy is a bit more challenging than when you’re in a laboratory.”
To guard against the sub-zero temperatures, she has to wear at least three layers, including long underwear, a sweater, snow pants and a parka and a beaver fur hat.
Her personal vet kit includes a stethoscope and thermometer; a complete necropsy kit with various tools and supplies and a survival kit, which consists of a blanket, waterproof matches, a signal mirror and a sleeping bag rated to -30 degrees.
“Hopefully I get to do at least one every other year or every year,” she said. “I like the cold and … its nice to use the professional skills I have to support the races and keep the dogs healthy.”
Pamela May, a relief veterinarian in Alaska, worked with Christensen at the 2012 Iditarod at the Unalakleet checkpoint.
“I think that it requires a special person to volunteer their time for this kind of work and, along with smarts. Christine possesses a great attitude and a sense of adventure which is a must have in her line of work,” May said.