A photograph taken when she was ten years old shows Dr. Michelle Tuma lying on a deck, covered in kittens.
“I always remember, whenever we would go visit my dad’s family – they’re from the Czech Republic – there were always barn cats around,” Tuma laughs.
“If they couldn’t find me, I’d always be out playing with the kittens.”
She credits her mother, born and raised in Peru in a home that rescued animals from domestics to baby squirrels, with her deep love for animals.
Along with the old photo, Tuma passed on a note from her Grade 4 journal that reads, “When I grow up I hope I will be a vet not a soccer player.”
A childhood aspiration that – like so few of us can say – did come true.
A warm welcome home
Now 28 years old, Tuma graduated from the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine last year and returned home to Yellowknife to start working at the Great Slave Animal Clinic in June 2014.
“It’s my home. I was born and raised here. I graduated from high school and everything here, my mom and brother still live here, my boyfriend is from here and his family are all here,” Tuma says over the phone on her lunch break – yips from her three dogs are hard to miss in the background.
“It was really nice to come to a city that is home, where I would have the support I needed during the transition from being a student to a real vet.”
As well as being home, she said there were other reasons for returning to Yellowknife, including her particular interest in small animals – which make up the majority of the veterinary work in town.
“There’s definitely a need for veterinary services in the city and throughout the territory,” said Tuma.
“I knew there was a need for that and I chose to come back for that as well.”
The first critical patient she treated in town, a young shepherd, still stands out she says, as he was brought in laying on his side, almost gone. When he was treated and sent home, she says, he was as happy as could be.
“It’s an amazing feeling being able to make an animal healthy again,” Tuma said. “What made this 100 times better was one day his owners came in to the clinic to meet me. I didn’t know they were coming. They surprised me (the dog was from out of town so I never met the owners beforehand). The kids had made me a thank you card and drew a picture of me playing with their dog.”
She doesn’t shy away from saying she cried when she saw the card.
Sharing her knowledge
Although she’s only been practicing for just over a year, Tuma has been able to help out with the SPCA in holding spay/neuter clinics in Behchoko and she hopes to get to other communities when time allows.
“When I went to Behchoko – the response we got was insane – all day long, vaccinating dogs. Some people were waiting for hours to get their dog vaccinated,” she says. “I was just happy they wanted to get their dog looked at. It was an amazing response and of course I wouldn’t be able to do that without the SPCA.”
Whether at a spay/neuter clinic or with her clients in the exam room, practicing veterinary medicine touches on another of Tuma’s longstanding interests.
While being a soccer player rated lower on her list of aspirations in Grade 4, education did jump to the top spot at one point. During high school and her university undergrad, Tuma says her focus turned from practicing veterinary medicine to becoming a teacher.
“I was doing a bachelor of science degree and thinking of maybe a post-graduate degree in education,” she says.
“I started taking some animal biology courses and it really kind of ignited that passion for science, and animals and their biology.”
Though she isn’t standing in front of a class, education is still a major part of her role as a vet – one that Tuma says is one of the things she enjoys the most.
“A lot of what we do in communities – and I haven’t done much – but a lot of it is education, so it kind of ties that back too. I love veterinary medicine and the science, but also that education of clients coming into the vet clinic.”
One chance she had to share the importance of pet health, Tuma says, was when two puppies were brought into the Great Slave Animal Clinic from Behchoko while she was working as a veterinarian’s assistant in between her third and fourth year of vet school. Both puppies had parvovirus – affecting the cells of the intestinal tract but preventable through vaccination – and the owners had to surrender the dogs because they couldn’t afford the treatment.
“I was going back into isolation with them where they were and I fell in love with these two puppies, they were just great,” she says. “They ended up getting better, both recovered and they were just two peas in a pod – one, the girl, was very shy, and the boy was outgoing,” she says.
The owners remained interested in the puppies’ progress throughout treatment and eventually returned with enough money to pay for one puppy’s treatment. Once recovered, they took the male back.
“I was talking with the owners … telling them about the importance of vaccination and how it’s so important, and so much can be prevented with vaccines,” she recalls.
“It was awesome because they came back to get him vaccinated properly. It was such a big moment in my life because I wasn’t even a vet yet and I was able to communicate to these people an important thing and they listened to me, trusted me and took my advice and they came back. I felt so proud that I was able to relay these important points to them and they understood.”
While certain moments and clients stand out, Tuma says she can’t help but connect with every client – she laughs that sometimes she’ll recognize the pets before the owners.
But the male and female puppy stand out for good reason.
“When I took her brother away I felt really guilty. I decided, OK, I’ll take her home and foster her because I have two dogs at home – one is a husky-cross I adopted from the animal hospital the summer before, Zola – and she will totally take her under her wing,” says Tuma.
With her boyfriend’s urging and her own bond with the puppy growing, Tuma says they adopted her – bringing their clan up to three dogs: Zola, Rajon and the female puppy Jaro.
“Now we do foster for the SPCA,” she says. “But we have yet to adopt a new one – three is perfect.”