PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — While most in The County are longing for spring, one nurse from The Aroostook Medical Center is happy that winter seems to be sticking around this year, thanks to another passion she has in addition to her nursing career.
When Jessica Holmes of Portage isn’t working the hospital floor or trying to catch up on some much needed rest, she most often is spending time with her family of furry, four-legged friends. Holmes is a musher who lives with a full team of energetic dogs who are more like extended family than pets.
“My dogs are extremely important to me,” said Holmes. “I love them like they are my other family. They have accepted me into their pack and that is a very important part of the dogs; they have to be accepting of you.”
Raising sled dogs was something she had wanted to do for almost as long as she could remember, but which she finally made happen at right about the same time she began to pursue her nursing career.
“I got my first team after my freshman year of college. I had a few people against it because of how demanding both mushing and nursing school would be, but mushing was something I had always wanted to do as a kid and I was not afraid of how hard it was going to be. I actually proved those people wrong. I still made the dean’s list and did well with my team,” she said. “I tell everyone that without my crew, I don’t think I would have made it through nursing school and still been sane.”
Holmes began working for TAMC about two years ago when she was still a CNA and while she was still a student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent. She completed the bachelor of science degree in nursing program at UMFK last December, and will sit for her State Board of Nursing examination soon.
“I love everything about nursing and my job at TAMC. The patients and their families are wonderful. And everyone that works at TAMC is a pleasure to work with,” said Holmes.
Raising a full team of Alaskan huskies and Alaskan hounds and preparing them to compete in events such as the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race, which Holmes and her team have raced in for the last four years, requires a huge time commitment. The offseason is less demanding.
“In the down season [late spring to summer], it is rather easy. There are not as many time-consuming things to do in the down time: cleaning the dog yard, feeding, spending time with the dogs, letting them have free play and fixing boxes. While there is a lot to do in the down season, there are no training runs that take importance,” said Holmes.
When the time approaches for training to begin, however, then Holmes must carefully manage her time between her job and her dogs. This might not be a problem if a career in nursing were less demanding, but somehow she finds a way to do it all.
“During the season [early fall to late spring], it does get tricky with the long, hard runs. But we do the long runs on the days I’m not working and the shorter runs on days I do work. We also hire a handler that helps so much with the crew year round. Another thing that helps a lot is the fact that I work the night shift. I feed before I go in for work, then feed breakfast after work, do my chores and then go home and go to sleep. Then get up and do it all again. If it’s during the season, I would fit a short run in before I go to sleep.”
As for racing, Holmes and her team compete in as many local races as possible and some races in southern Maine. They begin training before there is even snow on the ground.
“In the fall we start with a four-wheeler and do short, slow, hard pulls to build their muscles. In the winter, we start the longer runs with weight in the sled to build endurance,” she said. “So far we have run in the Can-Am for four years. The first year I did a 60 and didn’t finish. The second year I ran the 30 and finished. The third year I ran the 60 again and finished well, and this year I ran the 60 and I had a great friend run another team out of my kennel in the 30.”
Sometimes, finding the right balance between work and her dogs becomes Holmes’ priority.
“This year was difficult because I had my nursing school preceptor in the fall and it took a lot of time away from the training. We had to drop most of our races. I knew this season, my career had to come first so I could afford to keep my dogs. I love nursing and mushing so much I could never give one of them up,” said Holmes.
With nursing school behind her, though, Holmes is preparing herself and her team for their next big challenge, and it will be their hardest race together.
“Next season will be a big year,” said Holmes. “I will be signing up for the Can-Am 250 and we are hoping to get to a few out-of-state races. Next season will be harder. We will be doing longer and harder runs and camping out on the trail in order to prepare for the 250.”
Fortunately, TAMC encourages their employees to have hobbies and lives outside of work, understanding that what their staff does in their spare time helps to make them more relaxed and comfortable with the patients when they do come to work.
“TAMC has been amazing with scheduling. When I ask for days off, they make sure those days are available for me. Everyone I work with is very supportive and encouraging of me and the dogs. Before the race, everyone was wishing me luck, then after everyone had asked how it went,” said Holmes.
The entire TAMC staff will be cheering Holmes and her team on as she attempts the prestigious Can-Am 250 in 2015.