Adventure awaits – Reflections on Hobbits, Home, and Veterinary Volunteerism

It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out of your door… You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. – Bilbo Baggins

This morning as I sip a foul cup that passes for coffee, I realize it has been just over a year since we stepped off the hamster wheel and made some big changes in our lives. We have just finished a 5-week volunteer gig in the Caribbean and in a few days will swap our swimsuits for ski gear as we head home to Rossland, BC the most perfect place to spend Christmas. While I would like to think my gypsy heart would be happy to wander indefinitely, it knows that home is there, waiting quietly for my return. A little town, nestled in the mountains of BC and where my mind goes when I hear the word home. How lucky I am to have a home and to have it waiting patiently for me at the end of each journey.

Each time I return I am greeted by friends and acquaintances that make me feel like a minor celebrity and I realize the decision to step off the hamster wheel early is often misunderstood.  I try not to cringe as I hear the question “how are you enjoying your retirement?” I really need to stop explaining that we are not retired, just making a change in our career and lifestyle goals because, why does it matter?  To walk away from financial success in order to do more of the things I love, to give back in some small way and to explore new career options has been one of the best decisions of my life but it is not easy for everyone to understand. To be honest, learning how to live more simply and on less is a challenge and one I am still figuring out. We all think we need just a little more and we all spend to the limit (or beyond) our income. It isn’t an easy pattern to “unlearn”.

While home calls, waiting to wrap me in the warmth of its familiar embrace, the road continues to beckon, luring me with the thrill of the unknown. Since 2017 I have had the good fortune to spend approximately 20 weeks working as a volunteer vet on projects in 5 different countries and new opportunities await in 2019. I would be lying to say there have not been challenges. Challenging conditions, bureaucratic red tape, exhausting flights, and difficult people. Once hooked, working as a volunteer vet becomes like an addiction. Despite the dirt, the poverty, the overwhelmingly sad cases, I am a junkie waiting for my next fix, my next project.

47454699_2152493344802946_5652412420233101312_o

This year, I am looking at veterinary volunteering with new eyes and with the hope of making international volunteer work more accessible to other veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Despite the personal rewards and experience gained, the cost of travel and finding time to volunteer is a huge deterrent for many veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Previous blogs have described the benefits of volunteer work (I am Published, Cool beans! and For the Love of Dog) as well as what makes for a great volunteer experience (Try the Goat) but what about the project itself? How do potential veterinarians and veterinary technicians choose from among the many projects in need of their expertise? How can you be sure you are making a difference and also have a fun, positive experience? The answer to this question is complex but can be broken down into two parts. First, taking an honest look at the reasons you want to go on a volunteer trip and second considering the project, its leadership, and goals.

If you have never dipped your toe in the world of veterinary volunteerism, it is difficult to know what to expect and how you will react to challenging conditions. Picture yourself working in a hot, dirty, smell environment with cockroaches in the dog food bin. Consider your ability to practice veterinary medicine with limited tools and supplies. Will you laugh with delight to find drugs and suture only 2 years out of date instead of 6? How do you feel making a treatment decision using only a stethoscope and thermometer as your diagnostic tools? Are you adaptable to using unfamiliar drugs (what has been donated), unfamiliar anesthesia (what is available) and unfamiliar suture (always check its strength before using)? Finally, how will you react to the overwhelming need and neglect (by our Western standards) of so many of the animals in these countries? Can you work within the local cultural context and leave your judgment at home? My blog “Try the Goat” is an attempt to give volunteers some tips on having a great experience but as also a reminder that you need to be honest with yourself and decide if international work is right for you. If you need life’s little luxuries to be happy or if what you really need is a holiday, you may end up disappointed. If you see the world in black and white and cannot practice medicine without structure, familiarity and the organizational hierarchy of modern veterinary hospital, you may find this type of work stressful and anxiety-inducing. Finally, if seeing emaciated, neglected animals, and experiencing different cultural values associated with pet ownership is going to leave you either deeply enraged or deeply depressed, you may want to rethink your participation in an international veterinary project.

IMG_7993
Rob, a small animal vet, stepping outside his comfort zone and performing a Cesarean on a sheep. Large animal medicine, just like riding a bike…

If after reading this you are still excited about offering your skills to a volunteer project, the next step is choosing a great project to join. Do a google search of “veterinary volunteer projects” and you will be overwhelmed with options. Start by narrowing the search to a certain region or part of the world, talk to colleagues who have volunteered and finally consider these key considerations when evaluating your participation in a specific project.

1. Does the project has a clear mission and clearly defined goals (ideally in writing) that guide the decisions of both the project leaders and the volunteers. Read these goals and make sure your ethics align with those of the project leaders. For example, on some projects, sick animals will not be treated unless the owner agrees to sterilization. Are there clear medical protocols and are expectations for volunteers clearly communicated? Clearly defined goals provide a uniform and consistent message to the local community and provide the most efficient and productive use of volunteers energy, resources and time.

IMG_7908
Elaine is pretty happy to effectively sterilize 9 animals with just one surgery.  Meeting project goals and preventing 8 more puppies to hit the street.

2. Is there evidence of accountability? Nonprofit organizations, just like small businesses, need to be accountable to their volunteers and donors. Can the project document how donations are used? Do the organizers make efforts to track and evaluate the impact of the project on the local community and whether it is meeting its goals? Is the board willing to critically evaluate its’ impact and implement changes when it starts to veer off track? This can be a difficult thing for volunteers to evaluate but it worth your consideration. Full disclosure, when I began volunteering, I did not consider accountability. I wanted to escape, travel and experience veterinary medicine in a foreign country. These projects can be costly, you are likely using up your holiday time and you may also be giving up income or time with family in order to participate. With so many organizations looking for volunteers, consider your options and choose wisely.

3. Does the volunteer project respect the local culture and look for ways to become sustainable without outside support? This my friends is a lofty goal and I realize I am naive to expect long-term sustainability without foreign support, but it excites me when I see local community members supporting the project, being employed or trained by project leaders and ultimately becoming advocates for the project within their community.  Consider if there is an education component to the project (is there a school program), are there local supporters who help with the logistics and organization of the project and do they work alongside the foreign volunteers and project leaders to deliver education, sterilization, and medical care? Is there a spirit of collaboration with the local animal care community or are local organizations displaced and disrespected?

IMG_8043

4. Finally, is the project a fun, collaborative and positive experience for volunteers? Do volunteers feel respected, comfortable to ask questions and voice concerns without fear of being judged or shut down? Does leadership support a collaborative approach and foster an environment of improvement and learning? Do volunteers feel appreciated and supported? Are all volunteers, regardless of their experience, age or role on the project treated consistently with equal respect and perks? After leading a team for 20 years, I can confidently say, it is lonely at the top. Your team doesn’t care about your needs or how hard you work and nor should they. You took on this role and while it isn’t easy to stay positive and not let your personal biases influence your behavior and actions, at the end of the day, it is your responsibility. Before signing on to a project, talk to past volunteers about their experience, and be sure the time and money you spend in order to offer your skills we are rewarded with appreciation and respect.

IMG_3356

After 5 months of working as a veterinary volunteer I am fully aware that I have the easiest job, just show up and work hard. I appreciate the countless hours of work that goes into organizing these projects. From bringing together leaders and volunteers with different backgrounds and personalities, to engaging the support of the local community. From fundraising and bringing the required drugs and supplies across international borders to staying focused and positive in the face of daily roadblocks that can be overwhelming. It requires a phenomenal work ethic, passion, and perseverance that often goes unrecognized and sometimes unappreciated.  I tip my hat to all of you, the leaders with whom I have had the privilege of volunteering over the past 2 years.

So after all this thoughtful advice, my final comment is simple. Know yourself, do your homework and then stop overthinking it. Put on your pack, tuck in some lembas bread and open the door of your safe little hobbit hole. Step outside by placing one foot in front of the other as you walk through the Shire and into the great beyond. Adventure awaits, not for the strong or the brave, but for those with an open mind and a curious heart.

Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread through shadows to the edge of night, Until the stars are all alight. Then world behind and home ahead, We’ll wander back and home to bed. Mist and twilight, cloud and shade, Away shall fade! Away shall fade! – J.R. Tolkien

On the road again: Random ramblings of a volunteer veterinarian.

So here’s the thing; it is really flipping hot here. Hot and humid. Rivers of sweat sliding off my face and traveling down my body on a journey to some unknown ocean, hot. Why isn’t there a call for volunteer vets in Iceland?

IMG_7736
Time for a tasty smoothy in Hillsborough Carriacou

So here’s the other thing; apparently there are about 3000 different species of mosquitos worldwide and scientific studies (the number of bites counted in one square inch of my exposed ankles) prove that all 3000 species are to be found in Carriacou.

So here’s the final thing; despite the heat and the mosquitos, it is good to be back volunteering. We arrived in Carriacou, a small island off the coast of Grenada about a week ago. Rob and I spent about 7 weeks here in April and May of 2018 (see Where the Heck is Carriacou) and are back for another 6 weeks working with this special project.  When we were here in the spring, it was very dry and water on the island was scarce. Livestock, plants, and people were feeling the effects of low rainfall and water shortage. Now we are catching the end of the hurricane (rainy) season and the island is lush, green and cisterns are full.

45658207_2114299998622281_3719418279354171392_o
Eye enucleation surgery
46241983_2121679877884293_2412984743688667136_o
Puppy recovering from surgery

We have been very busy since our arrival on the island, treating the usual array of skin diseases and parasites. Performing sterilization surgeries and health checks as well as 3 eye enucleations. We have had a number of poisoning cases (a common occurrence on the island), tick fever cases and the frustrating but ever-present cases of neglect or abuse. So many of the problems we see arise from lack of education and pet overpopulation. We are working to improve the condition of the animals and in turn the health of both the wildlife and humans who are impacted by diseases in our domestic pets. Some days are difficult and it can be too easy to judge the actions of others based on our own cultural mores.  The goal of traveling and working with an open mind can be easily forgotten and my personal rule of “seeking first to understand” tossed aside.

IMG_7747
Dog suffering from anemia most likely due to tick fever and malnutrition

Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another cultures’ mores, values. Right and wrong are culture-specific and the ability to understand a culture on its own terms rather than using the standards of your own culture can be very beneficial when doing this kind of work. Sorta like what your mom always said, “don’t judge others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”.

IMG_7752
Severely emaciated dog, this photo does not really show how thin this dog was. She was tied up for “punishment” without food or water

This is a very simplified explanation of cultural relativism, a concept which is actually a very complex. Working and living in Carriacou however, brings this concept to mind daily as I interact with the friendly kayaks (what people from Carriacou call themselves), the expat population who now call Carriacou home, the tourists visiting the island and the other volunteers. I am hardly the person to get into a philosophical debate about this topic but I will say it can be hard to reconcile my own personal beliefs on animal welfare and sustainable veterinary volunteerism with that of the expat and tourist population. I feel it is important that foreign volunteers remember this is not their home and not their culture. Respect for the local people and their way of life is imperative to the success of the project. We are here to support the veterinary needs of the island dogs and cats based on what is culturally relevant for Carriacou.  This may look quite different than how we care for our own dogs and cats at home but without sensitivity and respect for cultural differences, the project will be doomed from the start. How do you react when someone treats you in either a patronizing way or simply tells you your ideas have no merit and are wrong? For most of us, this attitude ends the conversation and becomes a huge roadblock to progress and change. 

46213182_2121665631219051_7867042324218380288_o

46176132_2121665594552388_8741222104877236224_o
Community outreach to provide free flea, tick and deworming treatments to local dogs

Let me give you an example. You live in Canada, or the USA or the UK or perhaps France (you get the idea, you are from a culture of privilege). You travel to a little island in the Caribbean (or Malaysia, or Malawi) for a much needed holiday and a chance to see a new part of the world. You get off the plane, it is hot, muggy and you are immediately hit with new sounds, smells and find yourself in a world remarkably different than where you came from. There is a period of adjustment and some culture shock, which you may or may not have anticipated. As you walk to dinner at a fine restaurant the guidebook recommended, you pass several “street” dogs who are in various states of poor health. Thin to the point of emaciated, perhaps limping, perhaps they look mangy. But the dogs seem so sweet and so friendly and as you eat your expensive meal (by local standards) you think about those hungry dogs. You want to help but how? You give one a pet as you leave the restaurant and the poor thing follows you back to your hotel. He is waiting outside the next morning and greets you with hopeful eyes. You save a little of your breakfast and bring it home for him and by the end of your holiday, you’ve fallen in love and want to take him back to Canada, or the USA, or the UK or perhaps France.

IMG_4685
Yachts anchored off Carriacou

So what’s the big deal and is there anything wrong with this scenario? On one hand, it happens all the time and for that individual dog, should you manage to work out the paperwork and red tape to adopt the sweet creature and give it a life of luxury, where is the harm? I am not saying this is wrong, I am just suggesting that people need to look at the bigger picture. That dog most likely had an owner and it is quite possible the owner does love their dog but does not have the financial resources or knowledge to provide better care. Most likely in this culture dogs are not kept in fenced yards and wander and find food where they can. If you had not fed him, he probably would have gone home. When you “rescue” one dog you need to realize it will be quickly replaced by another who will soon be leading the same life as the animal you rescued. While you can feel good about what you did and you can take comfort knowing that you made a difference for one animal, don’t fool yourself into thinking this is really making a difference to the local dog population. In fact, you may have damaged the relationship between the “locals” and the veterinary volunteers working in that country. Your skin is the same color as theirs, you came and basically stole a dog. How will this action be perceived? Perhaps the local population will doubt the intentions of the veterinary project working in that community? Your actions may contribute to a feeling of distrust between the local people and the volunteers. “They say they are here to help us and our animals but how can we trust them if they allow our dogs to be stolen?” Obviously, I am making a point here and trying to give an example of how our actions, however well-intentioned, may actually create more harm than good. Making a difference is hard work. It is complicated. It means being culturally sensitive, carefully considering the consequences of your actions and ideally, being in it for the long haul. Perhaps, most importantly, it means leaving your judgment and moral superiority at home.

46226824_2121666451218969_7812772229862653952_o

I wonder if I am becoming jaded because I now cringe whenever I hear or see this quote “Saving one animal will not change the world, but the world will change for that one animal”. I understand the sentiment and agree that it is better to do something than to stand by and do nothing but I also think we need to explore the ramifications of our actions and be sure we are basing them on not only what is best for ONE animal, but also what is best for the entire POPULATION. Remaining idealistic is hard when faced with so much suffering. If I can be honest with you, I struggle to know if our volunteerism over the last few years is just a self-centered quest for meaning or if it actually makes a difference. But then, on a good day, I remind myself and truly believe that it is the small acts of kindness that accumulate and end up making the world a better place. Perhaps I just have too much time for self-reflection?

When in doubt default to kindness.

IMG_7765

Got Grit?: Redefining success in veterinary medicine.

I recently listened to an interesting TED talk, “The happy secret to better work” by Shawn Anchor and it got me thinking about the challenges facing our profession. Challenges that include burnout, compassion fatigue and a high rate of suicide. Shawn has hit on some key ideas worth examining. Ideas that may provide some insight into how to “reprogram” our profession and find the joy again in what we do as veterinarians.

The path to success in veterinary medicine is clearly laid out; work hard and study relentlessly. Strive for top grades, get experience in the profession and don’t give up even if it takes several years to get that acceptance letter. Veterinarians are not lacking in determination, focus and work ethic and it is that stubborn determination combined with hard work and a pinch of luck, that got most of us into veterinary school. We learned the importance of setting goals and pushing ourselves to the limit, in order to reach those goals. Once achieved, we set new, loftier goals and drive ourselves towards these new benchmarks. Always, in the back of our minds is a voice telling us to keep working, just a little more, just a little longer because when you reach that goal you will be happy.  Life will be good.

Scan_Pic0024.jpeg
Leaving for university. Who packed that truck? I am amazed my boxes didn’t fly out the back. 

I was one of those people who decided to become a veterinarian at a young age. Growing up on a family farm, my exposure to the profession was through our family’s veterinary practice; a group of mixed animal practitioners, who worked on all species but whose primary focus was large animals. I watched them treat bloat, perform cesareans on cows and save my horse from grass founder.  It fascinated me and I immediately decided that THIS is what I was going to not just DO, but BE.  I was determined to become a vet and as a teenager, I volunteered, worked hard and hung around our family’s practice long enough that they eventually gave in and offered me a summer job.  As I worked towards my goal, I was not dissuaded by people, including a high school guidance counselor and my own dad, who told me either I was not smart enough or resilient enough to become a vet. I stubbornly refused to give up and in the end, this tenacity and work ethic resulted in acceptance to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Following graduation, it was a given that I would return to my roots, mixed animal practice in rural Alberta. The overriding goal was to settle into a rural community, buy into a practice and build a life as a small town veterinarian. At the time it was not only all I knew, but it was also what was expected of me. This was the picture of my future I had visualized for most of my childhood and university years.

50th069.jpeg
My families prairie farm

 

Those early years had their challenges but they also set the stage for a newly married couple to learn how to support each other and work together as veterinarians. In a busy rural practice, you spend the months of January to March either pulling something out of a cow or pushing something back in!  It was a steep learning curve and as a recent graduate, I vividly recall being called out for one of the most difficult calvings of my career. I arrived at the farm to discover a small heifer presenting with the calves entire head protruding from the birth canal. Both front legs were back against the calves body and, while the calf was still alive, its head was terribly swollen. I needed to push the head back through pelvis in order to bring the front legs forward and pull the calf through the birth canal. After trying every trick I could think of, that swollen head would not budge. In desperation, I decided to perform a cesarean. Maybe, I reasoned, once I had the uterus open, I could pull on the calves hindlegs while the farmer pushed on the head and we could free it from the birth canal. It seemed like a good plan but after pulling and pushing, grunting and swearing I found myself no further ahead. Now I had a heifer that was down, with an open uterus and a live calf still stuck in the pelvis. My boss was unreachable, Rob was out on another farm call and I was out of ideas and starting to panic. Just as I started to melt down, I felt an arm go around my back and a calm voice said: “Don’t worry doc, we’re in this together and we will get that fella out”. I will never forget the acceptance and kindness shown to a very green veterinarian in that first year in practice.

17630125_1166112560166405_5579145633890020446_n.jpg
Graduation from Western College of Veterinary Medicine

We survived, and in that year and gained more experience than we ever imagined possible. Despite a welcoming community, we realized we needed to find a practice with more support and mentorship. We left that first job and joined a multi-doctor practice with hopes of settling into a new community and finding that elusive happiness. Fast forward four years. We are now partners in that multi-doctor practice and the life plan, as I envisioned it all those years ago, appears to be right on track. Get into vet school, check. Become a mixed animal practitioner in Alberta, check. Become a practice owner, check.  Start a family…wait a minute, you want to have kids? As a female large animal vet? What are your plans for the calving season?  Will you still be able to cover call?  How dare you become pregnant and start a family without discussing this with your partners? No congratulations were forthcoming and our excitement about starting a family was temporarily put on hold as we dealt with the many issues that had been simmering under the surface of this so-called partnership. Looking back, my pregnancy was simply the final straw in a partnership that was doomed from the beginning. There was never any intention to mentor and support the new owners with the goal of transitioning the practice to a younger generation. One dominant, narcissist partner called the shots and during a downturn in business, rather than look for solutions it was easier to find a scapegoat and place blame.

Making the decision to dissolve the partnership and leave Alberta was one of the hardest decisions of my career. Not only did we stand to lose a large amount of money, we also stood to lose our identity as veterinarians. The meticulous picture of my life plan, painted in my mind over the last 14 years, was being redrawn. Who was I if not a rural, mixed animal veterinarian? I felt like a failure. I was mentally defeated and for the first time since deciding to become a vet and I seriously questioned whether I had made the right career choice. I had worked hard, followed the path that was supposed to lead to success and therefore happiness. So why was I so unhappy?  Was I a failure if I walked away from this partnership?

Our culture has programmed us to follow a specific formula for success and happiness which goes something like this: If I work hard enough, I will be successful. If I am successful, I will be happy. This constant push to reach new goals and link the achievement of these goats to your happiness is a dangerous path. While strong work ethic, stubborn determination, and focus (or what is commonly called grit) are needed for success in veterinary medicine, I sometimes wonder if our profession has taken it too far.  If happiness is only achieved by becoming successful perhaps it is time to rewrite our definition of success. Through my failed partnership, I learned that grit will take you far but it is equally important to know when to walk away. All the grit and determination in the world cannot change a bad situation into a good one. Quitting doesn’t always equal failure, instead, it can be a new beginning, a chance to change your narrative and create your own definition of success. When struggling with the decision to leave our partnership, I recall a colleague saying to me “You can’t row a boat that isn’t moving”.  When you are stuck, you may need to get out of the boat and push it into the current. It takes courage, but trust me, the momentum will take you where you need to go.

Haters gonna Hate: Are we really supposed to just sit back and take it?

Surfing the web today I came across an online review directed at a veterinary hospital and a specific veterinarian in a small community. Reading it made me angry but then I realized that I don’t have to remain silent. This review was not about me or about my practice but it quite easily could have been. In fact, it has been about me in the past and like many veterinarians, I too have been victim to negative reviews, online slander and even bullying in my small community. For twenty-seven years, as a vet, I chose to “take the high road” and remained silent. Refusing to respond to the negative and slanderous online trolls, I tried to grow a thick skin and focus on staying positive. Only those closest to me know how much it hurt and how I struggled to not let those comments eat away at my confidence.

In the early years of my career, I struggled with being a professional in a small, close-knit community. As a vet, everyone had an opinion. They loved you or hated you. You were either a hero or a money-grubbing capitalist. Sometimes  the same client that praised you last week was the one calling you a heartless villain this week. While it has gotten easier to accept the nasty comments and behind your back whispers that occur in a small community, I have to admit, sometimes it still feels personal. How can it not? For many of us, our career as veterinarians is a calling, not just a job.

I still recall the experience as a new practice owner, of a truly hateful and slanderous campaign aimed at harming our small business and turning our new community against us. I was invited by a friend to join an evening painting group. I love to draw and paint, but starting a family and buying a small business had left me little free time to pursue my hobbies. I decided it was time to do something for myself and agreed to join my friend. I introduced myself to the group as just “Elaine” and being new to the community, most of the members did not know I was “Dr. Elaine”, a veterinarian.  As people worked on their art and chatted with each other, I remained silent as the talk turned to pets and then a discussion of local veterinarians. Opinions about local veterinarians were bantered about and then my stomach knotted as things suddenly took a nasty turn. I listened in shock, as people discussed the smear campaign of posters that were being placed around the community “exposing” the terrible new veterinarians that had recently started a practice. This was the first I had heard about this slanderous campaign and I was afraid and hurt. With a tremor in my voice, I stood up and re-introduced myself as “Dr. Elaine Klemmensen”. I heard a collective gasp go through the room and sat back down to a room of stunned silence. I continued to paint while trying to figure out how I could get the hell out of there! Thankfully I was saved by my pager buzzing. One of the few times in my career I was happy to get called in for an after-hours emergency! Trolls did exist, back in the days before social media. Spreading their message was a little more difficult and their reach more limited but the effect on an individuals psyche equally devastating. The happy ending to that story was that it helped to build my resiliency and it taught me a valuable lesson about focusing on inner happiness and my own definition of success rather than external validation and popularity.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion and what I am talking about here is not respectful dialogue and open communication aimed at resolving a conflict or misunderstanding. I am talking about mean and spiteful online slander aimed at harming an individual and/or their business. There is a difference and for years I ignored those trolls and refused to respond for two reasons: first, it seemed unprofessional and petty to respond. Second, I did not want to get drawn into the negative drama and chose instead, to protect myself and stay positive. To focus my energies on the people and things that I cared about in life and let the haters hate. It is far too easy in veterinary medicine to dwell on the negative. The negative outcomes, the negative clients, and the negative reviews. To let that one mean, unhappy client or coworker, ruin your day while forgetting about the 20 amazing people that put a smile on your face.

What I realized today, while reading this nasty online review, is that I can finally speak up. I no longer own a veterinary practice, I no longer have anything to lose and maybe it is time for all of us in this profession to end the silence, to stop turning the other cheek and to tell the bullies what we really think.

So to all of you out there who have posted unfair, biased and downright mean reviews about your vet. Rants aimed to hurt or damage their reputation with no desire to understand or resolve your issue. Wake up and take responsibility for your choices. You adopted that pet, you took on the financial responsibility for that animal and it isn’t your vet’s responsibility to subsidize the cost of medical care for you. It isn’t your veterinarian or their team’s fault when it is injured or ill.  As hard as we try, as skilled as we may be, we cannot save every patient, we cannot foresee every complication and while we are doing our best, at the end of the day we are only human. Stop making your vet feel guilty if they want to earn a fair salary for the 60+ hours a week they work and for heaven’s sake stop telling them they’re “only in it for the money”. Frankly, this phrase is getting pretty old for all of us. Show a little creativity and come up with something new already. Recognize if you choose a lower priced veterinarian who does not offer 24 hour emergency care, you made this choice. When your pet is ill on Christmas Day and your regular vet won’t answer their phone, is it fair to expect the other veterinarian to miss Christmas morning with their kids? Oh, and one more thing, if you are going to slander us or our team online at least have the balls to sign your real name. To Professor Dante, DW,  Mountain Mitch and all the others hiding behind your slick pseudonyms, you’re not fooling anyone. We know who you are and all you have succeeded in doing is losing our respect. If you have a problem with our service or care, just talk to us. Face to face. Like a grownup. 

Sorry if that sounds unprofessional folks but maybe it is time to stand up for ourselves and tell it like it is. When my son was in grade 5, he was the target of some schoolyard bullying. We talked about it and encouraged him to not react, to pretend it didn’t bother him, essentially to turn the other cheek. True to his nature, he listened, digested this information and then decided to handle it his way. This involved tossing the said bully across the room and ending up in the principles office. We were called into the school to discuss our son’s “anger management issues” and true to our non-confrontational nature, we listened and did not say what was on our minds, something I have always regretted.  Where are the other kids’ parents? Is it okay to constantly taunt someone with mental abuse until they snap? Thankfully his teacher gave our son the support we did not when several weeks later, he asked him how things were going. Our lad replied that things were much better for him after he threw the kid across the room.  The teacher just looked at him meaningfully and said: “Sometimes you just gotta do, what you gotta do”. 

Maybe it is time to stand up and do what we gotta do. What do you think?

L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

As I write tonight there is a welcome chill in the air after the hot days of July. I flip the calendar page to August and realize it is time to start thinking about the year ahead and making plans.  I have been talking about going back to school and using my experience as a veterinarian along with my business experience and people skills to help other veterinarians build amazing careers and lead balanced lives outside veterinary medicine. Something that is finally on the collective minds of our profession and is sorely needed. I truly love being a vet and the thought of building a new career to help other vets find the joy and satisfaction I have experienced in my profession excites me BUT… There is always a “but” isn’t there? Getting my executive coaching certification, while not impossible to do while vagabonding around the world, will be more difficult. Staying put in Canada and working towards this goal would definitely make things easier.

Over our favorite craft beer (at the Rossland Beer Company), we talked it out and tried to come up with a “plan” for the year ahead.  As I looked into the red/gold liquid of my Helter Smelter Amber Ale, the words from a song by Noah and the Whale started playing in my head.

“On my last night on Earth, I won’t look to the sky

Just breathe in the air and blink in the light

On my last night on Earth, I’ll pay a high price

to have no regrets and be done with my life.”

“L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

You’ve got more than money and sense, my friend

You’ve got heart and you’re going your own way”

I thought back to April 2016, Rob and I were bouncing across a flat plain in Botswana on our first trip to Africa. We were on a budget camping safari and loving every minute of it. With a hot wind in our faces, we had the tunes blaring as we shared a set of earbuds and watched the surreal scenery unfold around us.

IMG_E3533

We still owned our veterinary practice and the management pressure and workload was weighing heavily. I needed to make a change, hire a practice manager or commit more time to management and less to being a vet. I was struggling with how to move forward and honestly struggling to figure out what I wanted from life. L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N was playing and as I listened to the lyrics I realized it was time for us to stop putting off the things we want to do. What an amazing journey to build a small practice from nothing into a business and vision we could be proud of. To be part of a great community and to be able to provide a livelihood for several families in that community. But what did Elaine really want, on her last night on earth? That’s the kicker? What are my regrets and what can I do to reduce any regrets going forward?

My biggest priority has always been my family. If I am honest, it wasn’t always easy being a wife, mother and a veterinarian. The pressures of running a business, managing staff and client demands, being on call and also being present for my husband and children left me feeling like I was running on empty some days. Which seems crazy because I also had a supportive business and life partner, who I know felt the same way most days! Being in it together and having each other’s back, helped us survive those crazy times. Perhaps it is one of life’s great ironies that once you finally have more time and are able to enjoy each moment, your children suddenly don’t need you as intensely. They’ve grown and moved on to their own lives, which is as it should be.

What I do know moving forward is that my family is still my biggest priority and I want to be their biggest fan. I want to be there for the big moments. I want to have the time and make the effort to be a part of their lives while giving them the space they need to become their own people as they figure out this next phase. I also know I want to keep pushing my fear aside, trying new things, meeting new people and not let my fear of looking or sounding foolish hold me back. So if I don’t pursue a coaching career will I have regrets? Probably. When I am at end of days, looking back on my life will I regret not taking another year to bugger off, travel, volunteer and see more of this big beautiful world? Definitely. Decision made. Now I just need to stick with it and quit the second guessing.

Pretty great life, to be sure. If you are feeling envious, don’t be, instead be inspired. Ask yourself what you want, what’s holding you back and make a plan. Face your fears and do what you need to do, in order to find the joy you deserve. No regrets.

9e59fb06-83f5-4a54-8cc0-001183e7b8d1

Oh the People You’ll Meet!

“It’s about the journey, not the destination”.  What a load of crap. Let’s be honest here, anyone who has done any amount of traveling knows the journey often sucks.  Long lines in crowded airports, missed connections, surly flight attendants and shady taxi drivers make the “journey” something you grit your teeth and endure, in order to enjoy the prize, your “destination”. To me, there is something so patronizing about this little saying. It grates on me. “Well you know dear, its all about the journey now isn’t it”.  Meanwhile, the little voice inside my head is screaming “Really? The journey you say? Now that you mention it, maybe it really is fun to urinate in a claustrophobic cubical spattered with strangers bodily waste. Thanks for helping me see this in a whole new light!” Obviously, I am being sarcastic to make a point. We all travel for different reasons and there is no right or wrong way to travel. Sometimes it is about the journey. Sometimes it is about the destination. And sometimes it is all about you.

It is hard to believe we have been back in Canada for 3 weeks. It feels like I never left.  Did the last 8 months really happen? Or was it all a dream? As I write, I am sitting on the deck of a BC ferry heading home to Rossland after finishing a locum at a 24-hour emergency hospital on Vancouver Island. I am back to work, as a veterinarian, our town is the same, our house is the same and old routines are easy to slip into. While it feels like I never left, it also feels like everything has changed. During the past 8 months, I did not manage to figure out “what I’m going to do with the rest of my life” but I also feel less urgent about having a plan.

It was an amazing 8 months and looking back I realize for me, it is not about the destination or the journey but it is all about the people that I met along the way. Through my blog posts, I have shared stories featuring some of these amazing humans and dogs (see the story of stinky dog) but I also want to share a few more stories about people we met who made our journey so special.

Cycling into Cienfuegos Cuba, hot tired and in need of a beer and a shower, we headed to the central plaza to find some shade, wifi and make a plan. Rolling up we heard a shout from across the square “Hey Canadians, bikers over here!”  Two friendly cyclists were waving at us enthusiastically and we recognized them as the American/German couple we had chatted with roadside near Playa Giron. We pushed our bikes over and were greeted with big smiles, hugs and immediately fell into conversation like old friends. They introduced us to another cyclist, Pierre, riding a bike so fully loaded I was amazed he could peddle it forward. It quickly became apparent that Pierre was a powerhouse of energy and I suspect he willed that bike forward with his positive energy and the enthusiasm he had for life and second chances. We agreed to meet for dinner that evening and headed off to find a bed for the night. On the road, you make friends in an instant and that evening we learned that Nic and Franzi were on a final “fling” before settling down and starting a family.  Pierre had left Quebec to spend an undetermined time cycle touring in Cuba after a diagnosis (and luckily successful treatment) of prostate cancer. It was only one night but we made instant connections and shared our contacts. 

IMG_4444

Following Cuba Nic and Franzi spent an unbearably hot month in Mexico and then inspired by our description of British Columbia, headed to Canada to cycle from Vancouver Island, across the interior of BC and on to Montana. We were thrilled to get an email on our arrival home announcing they were in Canada and wanted to come to Rossland for a visit.

Did you know in certain hostels, you cannot stay if you are over 40 years old? What a stupid rule!  Our favourite hostels were those with travellers representing a wide range of ages, ethnicities and interests. These hostels had the best vibes, best stories and it was at one such hostel that we met Holger, the “German Renaissance man”.  As an extrovert, I  like hostelling and Hostel Polako a little hostel in Trebinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was my favorite hostel experience.

IMG_6295

The name Polako means “slow down” and the hostel owners, Lauren (American) and Bartek (Polish) welcome travelers of all ages.  Their friendly, open and laid back attitude seemed to be adopted by the other travellers staying there.  If you are willing to listen, everyone has an interesting story but sometimes, if you are lucky, you meet other travelers and make an instant connection. Holger, a pharmacist by profession, had decided to make a big life change and left his job, made his way south and ended up in Trebinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. He liked the town and hostel so much he stayed for months. Curious about the world, interested in other people and their stories as well as articulate, intelligent and knowledgeable about a wide range of topics, Holger was so much fun to hang out with during our 3 days in Trebinje. My favorite memory is an afternoon at the local winery learning about the subtleties of wine tasting and enjoying the late afternoon sun and conversation while slowly getting tanked.

IMG_6373

No one used the spit basin because if you stay in hostels you’re probably not the type to waste free wine!

IMG_6378

And finally the Croatian Brothers, whose names I cannot remember but whose hospitality will forever stay in my memory. Battling strong winds and rough seas on the western coast of Solta island, off the coast of Croatia (see Some things are Scary: Kayaking off the Coast of Croatia) we inched our way into a sheltered bay.  Our recommended campsite for the night was still 4 km away but we were tired, stressed and night was quickly approaching. As we paddled into the deep bay to find some shelter and spotted a small beach at the end of the bay. A beach big enough to land two kayaks. We decided to paddle towards it with the hope that we could camp there for the night. As we got closer, our hopes were dashed. I could see first a fishing boat and also a man on the gravel beach, it was private property. As Rob paddled up beside me, I could see he was as tired and dejected as me. 

“Let’s go ask if we could camp on their beach”, I said. “The worst that can happen is they will say no”.

I approached the shore and shouted “Hello, do you speak English?”.

With a shake of the head and a motion to wait there, the old man disappeared only to return shortly with his brother.

“We are very tired. Could we camp on your beach tonight?” I asked.

“Of course, of course. Please come in”, came the reply. 

Before we could get out of our boats we heard a question ring out across the water, “Do you like wine”?

IMG_6544

We pulled our kayaks onto the gravel beach and were met with warm handshakes and a genuine welcome. After introductions, we were led up a stone path and given a tour of tidy gardens, olive trees and an ancient stone cottage which enjoyed a lovely view of the Adriatic. 

IMG_6561

Anxious to get to the wine, our hosts once again invited us to join them on their patio. Darkness would soon arrive, so I said we would love to enjoy a glass of wine but they must allow me to prepare dinner and share it with them. As we sat down to enjoy a Mediterranean salad, cheese, local salami, cookies, and chocolate on their patio, the sun was setting into the Adriatic. Two bottles of wine and many stories later we realized what had started as a long and stressful day was ending in the most unexpected of ways. We rose early the next morning and joined our new friends for coffee before setting out.

IMG_6557

As we loaded our kayaks, they loaded their small fishing boat with supplies and together we paddled out of the sheltered bay to the open ocean. I will forever remember soft morning light framing two old gentlemen as they stood in their little red fishing boat, wishing us safe travels and waving goodbye to two strangers from Canada.

IMG_6571

Some Things are Scary: Kayaking off the Coast of Croatia

My blistered hands grip the kayak paddle as I point “red boat” towards the point of land 2 km away and across an open channel. The wind is hitting us from an angle and splashing over my spray skirt on every 6th or 7th wave. I brace my feet and legs and tell myself, “you’ve got this”, then I realize I am holding my breath. Yes, I am scared. Maybe we are in over our heads?  As the sun is setting we are making a final attempt to find a beach where we can land the kayaks and camp for the night. It is our second day out on a self-guided kayak trip near the city of Split, off the coastline of Croatia and we have been fighting the wind all day.

“The weather is unsettled this week”, the rental company warned us. “Keep an eye on Aladdin (a great weather app) and we will message you if conditions are too severe”.

Our proposed campsite for the night lay around an exposed point, off the island of Drvenik Veli. We attempted to pass around the point in the early afternoon and were forced back by high waves, winds and scary cross currents.  Perched on a small and rocky beach, with no place to pitch a tent or safely stow our boats for the night, we spent the afternoon waiting. Waiting for the winds to die down, as they usually do when evening approaches, so we could make another attempt. From our perch, conditions seemed to be improving, time to try again. As we approach the point, we are once again forced back and end up making the “safer” decision to head across the channel to Drvenik Mali, and a less conveniently located camp. It would mean we will have extra miles to cover tomorrow, but at this point it beats perching on the rocks overnight or risking serious consequences if we stick to plan A.  As I breathe through each paddle stroke, bringing me closer to our tent and a safe bed, I think to myself “how did I end up here again?”.

“Hey Rob, while we are in the Balkans we should look for a kayak tour off the coast of Croatia”, she said.

“Sounds great!”, he said.

“Oooh, looks like there are a few companies we could go with, out of Dubrovnik”, she said.

“Make it so Captain”, he said.

A few days later…. “Yikes it is crazy expensive”, she said.

“Oh well, maybe we can do some hiking or something instead”, he said.

“Yeah, maybe”, she said dejectedly.

Time passes, they do this super cool self-guided hut to hut cycling trip in Montenegro (see Cabbage Rolls and Coffee) but it is hot and the idea of being on the water is so enticing. She heads to google again.

“Hey Rob, there is a company in Split called RED Adventures” (cool coincidence given we ski live next to and ski at RED mountain BC).

“They rent kayak and camping gear, provide a route and phone support and help paddlers do a self-guided trip”, she said.

“That sounds perfect, let’s do it!”, he said.

IMG_6473
Day 1:  Beach at Split just before heading into the unknown

And so here we are.  Obviously, we survived because I am writing this blog! And in reality, many hard ass paddlers would think we are pretty “lame” to even be afraid in these conditions, but here is the thing. If you love the outdoors and are into adventure sports, pushing your boundaries and finding the “edge” of your comfort zone is how you improve your fitness level and your skills. The tricky part is learning where your personal boundary or edge is and making decisions to manage the risks while still pushing yourself to new levels.

vis
Our paddling route

We continued to battle the wind for the remaining 5 days of our tour.  Rising most mornings at 4:30 am to pack up camp and be on the water for a few hours of lighter winds. Stopping by early afternoon and waiting for the winds to die down in the evening and then pushing ourselves to try to make it to our next camp so we were not paddling in the dark. The islands off the coast of Croatia are beautiful, but safe spots to land your kayak as well as wild camping sites are limited, meaning high mileage some days and becoming adept at surf landings!  It also meant doing some “stealth camping” on private beaches and trying to sneak away at first light.  All in all, it made for a more anxiety inducing trip but it also added to the adventure factor.

IMG_6533
Calm seas headed towards Drvenik V

Looking back, despite the stress of paddling in unfamiliar waters, with difficult crossings and long distances between good campsites, I am so glad we did it. At the time, it felt as if we were missing out on enjoying the Dalmatian coast experience. When planning a trip, you start to daydream and develop an expectation for your adventure. I imagined paddling in warm Mediterranean weather with time to enjoy a beer at a little beach bar and swim in the crystal blue waters of the Adriatic. As is often the case when you have preconceived ideas, the reality is different than what you imagined. In my case, the trip was much more difficult than I anticipated, but I feel stronger and more accomplished for the experience.  Plus there were some really cool moments.  For example, discovering huge caves created by President Tito and the former Yugoslav army after World War 2. These massive caves, carved out of the limestone cliffs on islands off the coast of Croatia are invisible to passing boats and planes. Created during the cold war era, and now abandoned, they are large enough to hide an entire battleship or submarine. Paddling into one of these empty, dark tunnels is akin to being in a James Bond movie. With Rob in the lead, our kayaks slipped into the silent darkness. As I approached the end of the tunnel I felt a little creeped out until an eerie voice came out of the darkness ahead of me, “Well Bond, I see you have found my secret lair”, breaking the mood and cracking me up.

This trip gave me new respect for mother nature. On our final day of paddling, we had to cross the 5km channel between the island of Brac to the island of Hvar, where we would stay in a guesthouse and catch the ferry at Stari Grad back to Split. Once again the forecast was for strong winds in the morning. We set the alarm for 4:30am and were up, enjoyed our coffee and museli (literally we mix the instant coffee with the museli and add milk – a fast, easy way to get your coffee and breakfast with only one bowl to wash!) and packed by 6am. Just as we put on our spray skirts the wind picked up and the sky turned black. I saw a flash of lightning across the channel and started to count as I waited for the boom of thunder.

“One, one thousand, two one thousand… that was about 5km away”, I said to Rob.

Before I even finished the first count, at least 3 more lightning flashes filled the sky, with the final flash being amazingly bright and the corresponding thunder happening seconds after I saw the flash!  Yikes, we wisely moved from the tall tree under which we were sheltering to an area of lower bushes just down the beach from our boats. As the sky opened up, we realized our raincoats were packed away and, soaked to the skin, we ran for a small stone shrine to wait out the storm. Finally, the wind died down and the storm moved on, prompting us to attempt our crossing.  As we paddled out of our sheltered bay, a local sailer clambered onto his boat’s deck and begged us to stay put.

“After a storm, the winds will be very strong. Please. BE SAFE. You should not cross”.

We nosed out of the bay to be hit by wind and high waves prompting a retreat back to the beach and unpacking of the boats. Immediately after setting up our tent, the team at Red Adventures messaged us.  They advised that the best time to cross would be in 1 hour as there was a 3 hour window where winds would drop and we should be able to make it. We mulled over this information and decided to go for it. By now we were good at taking down camp and loading our boats quickly. Within an hour, we were ready to try again and indeed, the weather in our sheltered bay did seem to be improving. As we paddled by the sailboat once again, it was a moment of deja vu as our friend gravely advised us.

“Stay safe. Please be careful, the winds are very unpredictable today. You must be safe!”

IMG_1549
In a crazy lightning storm this shrine was our shelter

The lure of a shower and a real mattress (instead of a sticky pool floaty from the dollar store) pushed us out of the sheltered bay. The locals call white caps on the ocean “little sheep”. As we paddled into the channel we discovered some “big ass sheep” and once again carefully turned our boats back to the safety of the beach, accepting defeat to mother nature and providing some good entertainment for our sailor friend, I’m sure! Rounding the corner into the sheltered bay, we saw a small fire had been started by a lightning strike on the bank just above the shrine that sheltered us. Good golly Molly!

IMG_1544
Our campsite: taken down and set up again 3 times in total!

Down to instant coffee, some museli, a cup of pasta, a bit of cabbage, a carrot and a few tablespoons of mayo we mulled over what creative meal we could create with these ingredients and decided to hike to Blaca monastery, located 2 km inland from our beach. Maybe the monks will have food! The monastery, now a museum was very interesting and well worth the few dollars for a tour. The last monk to live in this isolated hermitage, a descendant of the Milicevic family, died in the 1960s. It was surprising to see a world-class observatory and a baby grand piano in this beautiful but extremely remote location.  In fact, the last priest to live here, Nikola Milicevic, was an internationally recognized astronomer. But best of all, they had local prosciutto, sheep cheese, bread, and beer. Jackpot!

IMG_1520
Monastery Blanca on the island of Brac

 

So what is the moral of this tale? Don’t be afraid to have an adventure? Don’t let your expectations of an experience prevent you from enjoying it when the reality is different from what you had imagined? Boundaries keep us safe but it is only by pushing against them that we are able to progress and reach new heights? Or maybe it should be, always listen to the locals. You decide and then choose your own adventure. Remember sometimes the retelling of the tale is the most fun of all.

IMG_1562
Lifted our boats up to the dock and ready for the ferry ride back to Split