At the time of the following interview, Roberta A. Duhaime, Kahnawake Mohawk, DVM, was a veterinary medical officer with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Veterinary Services. She is still with the USDA, now as a tick epidemiologist working on the United States-Mexican border. In 1995 when the Murray Federal Building was bombed, she was working at the Oklahoma State Department of Health and had to deal with unanticipated tragedies and challenges.
The Adventures of a Veterinarian
What was your path in becoming a veterinarian?
I was born in 1957 in the early days of space travel, so when I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut, a veterinarian, or an artist. I always had either a cat or a dog.
My mother is Kahnawake Mohawk, and our reservation is in Canada. My father is French with ancestry from Canada. I grew up both on the reservation and in Queens, New York. When my sister and I got out of school for the summer in New York, my dad would drive us to up to Kahnawake the reserve. We’d be there until school started again.
At Queens College, I majored in anthropology. Being Indian, I was interested in how people think in different cultures. At that time I didn’t know how I would use this major, I just wanted to do something that I was interested in.
When I graduated, I had a bunch of different jobs, such as Girl Scout Troop service director and New York City urban park ranger. Although I always had an interest in becoming a veterinarian, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend all the time in school that it would take to become one. After working at various nonpermanent jobs that I liked, such as a naturalist trainee with the Audubon Society, I decided that I might as well be prepared to apply to vet school. I didn’t have the right prerequisites for vet school, so I took a job as a part-time Customs Officer at JFK Airport while I made up the classes I needed.
Eventually I applied to the New York College of Veterinary Medicine (at Cornell University) and was accepted. But I didn’t have the money to attend, so I wondered, “Now what do I do?” I did lots of research about funding sources and was able to find enough financial aid.
I went to vet school for the fun of it. I enjoyed it, but didn’t go necessarily to end up working as a private practice veterinarian at a vet clinic. A lot of other students were stressed because their family wanted them to be a vet. I didn’t have that pressure. At that time not many people in my family had graduated from college. My sister was the first one in my immediate family to earn a college degree.
At vet school, I was fascinated with everything. First I thought I’d like to be a Wildlife vet, so I joined the student Wildlife Vet Association. I also joined the student club for people who were interested in international medicine. In fact, I joined everything.
Did you work summers during vet school?
Yes, every summer I had a job. I always chose something that was fun and allowed me to spend time outside – or at least outside of an office. The first summer I went back to the U. S. Customs work. I made good money and enjoyed the people.
The second summer I tried to get a scholarship from Expanding Horizons, a program designed to help vet students explore something different. I wanted to work on a reservation. Initially the people in the program rejected my proposal. But I kept looking for money. Finally the dean came up to me and said, “You’re spending too much time looking for financial aid for this project. I’m giving you the money.”
I worked on the Navajo reservation with the Navajo Livestock Program both in Window Rock and in Tuba City. Then for a week I worked with a vet on the Hopi reservation. Being from the Eastern U.S., I was used to seeing mainly dairy farms. Around Navajo there were huge beef ranches as well as sheep flocks. While we were doing herd healths (vaccinating the animals, etc.), the owners branded the cattle and sometimes castrated them.
The guys I worked with taught me some Navajo language. When I went home and spoke Navajo words, my aunts said, “You know more Navajo than Mohawk.” So I said, “Teach me.” I’m still not fluent in Mohawk, but I’m getting there.
The third summer I went by myself to Africa. I went out to the farms with people from the vet school in Kenya. I learned that in Kenya they don’t have things for human hospitals that we have here for vet hospitals. The people are tribal people. They may be poor in some material things, but they are rich in culture, in community, and in relationships with other people,
My motto was “Create your own reality.” When I graduated from veterinary school, I had already had many different work experiences. In the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, I saw an ad for a USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] veterinary position. My prior experiences that I had participated in—just because I enjoyed them—actually helped me be more qualified for this position.
Some other students were shocked that I only applied for one job. At the panel interview for the USDA, APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] job, I was asked, “Where else are you applying?” I told the interviewers that this was the only job that I wanted. I got the job.
Where did you work?
I started in New York State as a veterinary medical officer trainee. Then I went to West Texas for 3 years. I got tired of driving around because I had a huge area to cover. There are always opportunities in this agency, so I applied for the EIS (Epidemic Intelligence Service) through the CDC (Center for Disease Control).
EIS is a very prestigious program in human medicine as well as veterinary medicine.
Our agency usually sends one or two people a year for EIS training. You’re assigned to the CDC for 2 years, but you can also do that time in a state health department. I decided to do my time at the Oklahoma State Department of Health in Oklahoma City. I was still employed by my agency, but every day I worked at the Oklahoma Department of Health. And I went back and forth to Atlanta (where the CDC is located) for training.
I was in Oklahoma City at the health department when the Oklahoma City bombing happened. My USDA fellow employees had an office in the Murrah Building. Most of them died. I was going to go over to the Murrah building at 9 AM that day to discuss a study that I was working on with a USDA colleague, but I didn’t get there. The bomb exploded at 9:02 AM. I didn’t know who was dead or alive.
That must have been awful.
I worked with the CDC and the Injury Prevention Service Division of the Oklahoma State Department of Health on the human injuries and deaths (epidemiology) of the event. First off, the CDC wasn’t sure how to find the relocated offices and people. I knew that the General Services Administration (GSA) would have maps of the Murrah Building and would also probably have helped temporarily relocate the offices. So with that thinking out the box, (which I think Indian people tend to be good at) we were able to plot out where all the people in the affected buildings were at the time of bombing and what injuries occurred, which people died, which ones had eardrums blown out, etc.. I interviewed someone from every office.
Did you loose any of your friends and colleagues?
Everyone who died in our office was a friend and colleague. One of the men, an administrative officer, who had always gone out of his way to be most helpful to me died. The veterinary colleague who had been working on a study with me died. Only one person from my unit who was in the office at the time of the explosion survived. Only the rim of the office was left.
What a nightmare!
I had to think about it and work on it for days on end. Then I’d go to a funeral. Then more work and another funeral. Over and over. It was unbelievably hard. I lived two blocks from the church that was used to notify families. You couldn’t get away from it. For weeks everyone had their headlights on in mourning.
I went to a ceremony where Indian people came to pray. It was a miserable day — cold, rainy and windy. I wanted to leave because I was freezing, and it was impossible to stay dry. But there were some Elders, women, talking about all the suffering that we have been through as Indian people, and so, therefore, we could get through this. They were old enough to remember. Here I was just a little bit cold and uncomfortable, so how could I leave. The ladies said that when it rains, the spirits can go up. It was pouring rain every day. It was an unbelievable experience.
Two years after the bomb, I was sent back to Oklahoma City to attend a Critical Incidence Workshop for disaster responders. It was a debriefing regarding the personal effect of the disaster on each responder, The debriefing can be compared in some ways to a cleansing type ceremony. I should have gone sooner.
The bomb happened toward the end of my second year in Oklahoma. I was so burned out when I left Oklahoma that when my colleagues at the health department asked if I wanted to continue working with them on the human study, I said that I didn’t want to. When the human study was published in JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association], my name was mentioned with a thank you. When I was in Oklahoma I also began a study of the injuries and illnesses of the search–and- rescue, police, and bomb-detection dogs at the bomb site.
What an incredibly painful experience. I’m so sorry that you had to go through all of that. What happened with the dog study?
I continued working on it. It took 3 years before it could be published because the CDC and FBI wanted to be sure there was nothing in the article that would impact the criminal trial. The CDC wanted to have a lot of statistics in the article. I wanted to include and highlight the recommendations for changes from dog handlers. The CDC didn’t want to handle it that way. I said, “That’s what’s going to help people.” Finally CDC agreed I could publish the article if I didn’t include acknowledgement that I was working with the CDC.
Then 9/11 happened. Because of my experience in Oklahoma, emotionally I couldn’t go to Ground Zero until the night before Easter. My boyfriend and I made a prayer circle around the whole site. When we got to the far side of the circle, there was a dog with a vest on sitting by an Officer who is a Captain with a Search and Rescue unit. The officer said the dog, named Bear, was the first dog on the site after the attack, and that Bear had made the most live recoveries.
I told the officer about the article on the dogs in Oklahoma. He wanted a copy. Later, after reading it he phoned to say that we had done a good job and that we had reached the right conclusions. He felt that the same mistakes had been made again on this disaster, and that people needed to learn from the dog handlers’ recommendations that were in the paper.
The paper and my experiences in Oklahoma were far from what I had initially thought that job would bring. They happened because I happened to be in EIS. I happened to be in Oklahoma. I happened to be the only veterinarian. That’s how I ended up doing the dog study. It’s not directly related to the job I do. That is an Indian thing – if you open yourself up, then you’re where you’re supposed to be at the right time. A medicine woman told me, “You agreed to be there.”
Where did you go when you left Oklahoma?
I was recruited to work with Emergency Programs staff at our APHIS headquarters just outside of DC in Maryland. We do disease outbreak investigations and disease control for the U.S. animal population. The work was exciting and important, but I got tired of working in a cubicle, so I took my present field job. I took a cut in pay to come back to the field, but it’s worth it.
What are your current job responsibilities?
That changes. My usual geographic area covers about one-third of Pennsylvania. But when there is an animal disease outbreak somewhere else, we can choose, or might be told, to go help. I could have gone to the United Kingdom for the foot and mouth epidemic, but I declined. I actually just got back from working three weeks on an out-of-state detail to control an outbreak of a bird disease called Avian Influenza, which is affecting chickens and turkeys. I was the Orientation and Training Officer. I conducted all of the basic training and orientation for all the personnel who came to the Task Force.
Earlier, I was involved in the scrapie program. Scrapie is similar to mad cow disease, but it is mainly a sheep disease. Sometimes goats get it. People don’t get scrapie. I worked with farmers who wanted to keep their sheep from getting the disease. I also look for the disease by collecting sheep brains, tonsils, and lymph nodes from sheep at a local slaughterhouse. We’re trying to find out how much scrapie actually is here in the U.S. Then we will know how much money to ask Congress for in order to eradicate the disease.
We also work with the livestock markets and have regulations for disease control purposes. We make sure the people in the markets understand and are following these regulations.
So your job includes teaching.
Yes, one of our products is information. Some of the teaching is informal, like talking to people at a slaughter plant. When I have had time, I’ve talked to producers’ groups, school children, and others.
I’m also trained as a foreign animal diagnostician. If a producer or private veterinarian calls to say that there is something unusual happening in their animals, I’m the one who goes out.
We’re also conducting a national dairy study. I’m the coordinator for Pennsylvania. The study is voluntary, so we have to convince producers to let us collect blood and milk samples and answer questions about their animal disease control. The information will help the dairy industry see ways to improve.
In past years, I was the Eastern Region Native American Special Emphasis Coordinator. (I’m still involved.) That’s a collateral duty assignment, meaning you don’t get extra pay. I was trying to help our agency people understand that American Indian Nations are sovereign. Because of the sovereignty of every Indian Nation, federal agencies do not have jurisdiction on reservations. This means we must work cooperatively in a government-to-government relationship with Indian nations. I will be making presentations at some, “Preparing Tribes for Animal Disease Emergencies” meetings that are coming up.
On 9/11, I was just outside of Atlanta Georgia at a meeting where I was supposed to make a presentation for our veterinary service people on Native American issues. When it was my turn to speak we knew the two buildings in New York had been hit, so we knew it wasn’t an accident. I talked about the Tree of Peace. Unbelievably, a Tree of Peace symbol was on the mugs and bookmarks that were handed out at the meeting. The motto shown was, “The strength of our country is rooted in our diversity.”
Our agency is supposed to be creating a new position called Native American Liaison, which will be full time working with Indian Nations. I intend to apply for it.
What would you like to do in that position?
The proposed new position is to coordinate our agency programs with First Nation tribes to provide our services in whatever way we can.
You have to be creative. In some tribal Nations there may not be much animal agriculture, but there are still things we can do. For example, I understand that some Lakota people are trying to get back to raising horses but don’t want these horses ever used for slaughter. Our agency is involved in export and import, so we might be able to facilitate the export of these horses to countries that would agree not to slaughter the horses for meat.
It would be of tremendous value to help First Nations prepare for Animal Disease Emergencies. The liaison position could also help USDA understand First Nations sovereignty.
What advice would you give to readers who want to consider careers in veterinary medicine?
There are endless opportunities in veterinary medicine and also a zillion opportunities working with the government. I’ve had such a wide range of opportunities. If you see a need, there’s probably a way you can get the work done if you are creative and have perseverance.
Is there any reason to particularly encourage Indian people to go into veterinary medicine?
I’d like to see more Indian people in my agency. A lot of the prophecies say that now is the time to share Native wisdom. Indian people can enhance the ability to look at things in a different way.
Native American values are important to all. An example would be when a Native person hunts deer for food there is a strong connection with that animal, and the animal is to be thanked for its life. Currently in American slaughter houses we do not have this same sort of feeling of thankfulness. Although much work has been done, much more is needed to enhance respect for the domestic animals that we eat.
I think many people feel badly that we are losing our cultures. The best way to preserve our culture is to help it grow within ourselves. Then it can’t help but be spread to others.
Are Indian veterinarians needed on reservations?
Definitely, but on many reservations money might be lacking to pay veterinarians. But if you want to work on a reservation, you might be able to create a job. It might include only a little clinical medicine, but a degree in veterinary medicine can help in many endeavors such as helping to bring back wildlife. There are also many environmental problems that need to be addressed. I am friends with a veterinarian who is using her veterinary knowledge to test reservation dogs, other animals, and the fish, on her reservation for poisons. She is helping clean up the environment.
But you shouldn’t feel guilty if you don’t want to work on a reservation. You can assist your people in other ways.
You certainly are having an exciting and rewarding career. I think that readers will be inspired by your initiative and creativity. Thank you for sharing your story.
Dr. Duhaime’s article about the dogs used in the rescue and recovery work following the Okalahoma City bombing is:
Roberta A. Duhaime, Dianne Norden, et al.. Injuries and illnesses in working dogs used during the disaster response after the bombing in Oklahoma City. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 212(8): 1202-1207, 1998.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2002 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Virginia Stroud, United Keetoowah Bank of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.)
Dr. Duhaime: "I am now the Cattle Fever Tick Eradication Program (CFTEP) Tick Epidemiologist with the same agency (USDA, APHIS, VS). I now work along the Rio Grande River in South Texas with a group of Mounted Patrol Officers (nick named Tick Riders) who protect the United States livestock population from the Cattle Fever Tick. (The tick can carry a disease which was responsible for stopping the cattle drives - a great part of our US history!!). I really love the job and the people who I work with. This is the most enjoyable position I have held in the agency to date!!"