Will Spay for Food

Rob and I have just returned from an amazing week doing outreach clinics in the Shakawe region of Botswana.  Shakawe is a village located in the northwest corner of Botswana close to Namibia and Angola. The panhandle or head waters of the Okavango delta is next door and the small community, 375 km from Maun, is without access to veterinary care. 

map_of_botswana

We loaded up our rental 4WD truck with all the gear necessary for setting up a mobile spay and neuter clinic and headed north on what passes for a highway to the village of Shakawe. Fortunately traffic on this road is light, as it is littered with massive potholes often requiring us to take advantage of our 4WD and use the ditch, instead of the highway, as we navigated around the axle bending holes.  Our host for the week was the lovely Ansie, who put us up at the Crocovango Crocodile farm’s research station. A shady camp with sturdy tents, a kitchen and outdoor showers made for a perfect retreat after a day of hard work. Each morning we would head to a different community in the region and set up our clinic at the local kgotla.  A kgotla is a traditional meeting house for the community and our host, Ansie, had made arrangements with the local chiefs to use their kgotla for our mobile hospital.  Most days the chief would arrive as we were setting up and greet us.  By the end of the week I almost had the traditional handshake down, generating a few laughs as I fumbled to do it properly!  For all but one of our clinics, we had shelter from sun and rain and worked inside a small building or under an overhang beside the building. One day our hospital was organized under the shade of a large tree.  I think this was my favourite site however, more than once, sterility was breached by blowing leaves and crawling bugs.

IMG_3403

We started the days early and were up by 6 am and on the road by 7 am to set up for the day.  Most days, locals from the village would start to arrive with their pets around 8 am. By far the majority of dogs were brought in by local children, as their parents were at work.  The children would arrive with dogs of various colours and sizes and we would give them a number and proceed to weigh their pet. Each day had the atmosphere of a “special event” starting with the fun of weighing the dogs and continuing as the children gathered around the surgical tables to watch us operate. On one of the slower mornings, our veterinary assistant Kenny, had the children weigh their own dogs which was met with a lot of laughter and smiles.

IMG_3056

The children would stay all day waiting for their dog (or cat) to be awake and ready to transport home. Many of them walked several miles with their pets to attend the free clinic. For the most part they were shy and quiet, always respectful and very patient, spending the day in whatever shade they could find, while they waited.

While in Shakawe we met a young boy of 12 years who arrived at the outreach clinic by himself with his dog and another small child in his care. He advised us he wanted to stay with his dog and told us “he is afraid but he is a good dog and will be comforted by my presence”.  We advised him this was just fine and as we sedated the dog and started surgery, Rob started to talk to him.  Because my surgery table was only a few feet away from Rob’s, I had the pleasure of listening in on their conversation. What I heard will stay with me always and pretty much sums up what we are doing here in Botswana. First, he told Rob that the young boy in his care was his 3 year old cousin who, by the way, he loved very much.  He closely watched his dog’s surgery and then looked at Rob and thoughtfully said “So sir, I can see that what you are doing here helps the dogs and people of Botswana and for that we are grateful, but what I am wondering is how this benefits you”. Rob had a great response and told him the benefits to us were not something you could see, not money or pula. He said that we loved visiting Botswana and we think it is a special place. We love the wild life and that by sterilizing the dogs and vaccinating them we are helping to keep both the dogs and also the wild animals healthier. I could see the boy was both a little surprised but also proud that we loved his country and wanted to help.  They then talked about the idea of “paying it forward” and that we were lucky to be in a situation that we could help the people and dogs of Botswana and that perhaps someday he would be able to remember us helping his dog and it would remind him to help someone too.  By “paying it forward” each of us can do our part to make the world a better place. The conversation ended with me asking him what he wanted to do when he was an adult.  He thought about this and said “I do not know what I want to do, ma’am, but I know I somehow want to make history”.

IMG_3101

Over a beer last night, we asked ourselves what it is about Botswana and MAWS that draws us here.  The days are long, hard and we come home hot, tired and smelling of urine. We are practicing veterinary medicine with the most basic of tools to service the most needy population of pets. We often feel at a loss when it comes to making a diagnosis and we try our best to help and not harm.  Our patients bleed easily and profusely during surgery, our clamps don’t clamp our suture is on a spool requiring our old eyes to thread needles all day and our scissors are as dull as the ones you buy for a first grader.  Yet we make do, we struggle, we laugh and at the end of the day it feels good to go home bone tired and feeling like we did some good today. It feels good to sit outside as the day cools to night and listen to the sounds of Botswana.  In so many ways it takes us back to life on the Canadian Prairies, big sky and big sunsets and our roots as rural veterinarians.

If I am honest, I came to Botswana for purely selfish reasons, a chance to begin this new stage of our life with an adventure and a chance to get back in the bush with the elephants, antelope, zebra and giraffes. Volunteering with MAWS was a means to a selfish end, I regret to admit. A free place to stay in exchange for some veterinary care. But in the end it became so much more.  How do you tell someone how good it feels to help an animal in need and to see the relief and thanks on the faces of those you help? How do you explain the amazing ability to make friends and deep connections with a community that will last a lifetime in just 6 short weeks? How do you thank  that same  community that took you in, accepted you without reservation and made you feel as if you are now a part of something bigger?

IMG_3356

Our 7 weeks in Botswana is coming to the end and while I know we will return, it is still hard to leave.  And as I sit here tonight, putting thoughts to paper,  I think of that boy and his question “I was wondering, how this benefits you?” How do I answer this? How do I put what is in my heart into words? For me, it has always been easier to give than to receive. Independent, stubborn and raised to stand on my own two feet, asking for and accepting help is something that is difficult for me.  So tonight, as we approach this season of giving, I choose to just graciously accept the joy and happiness that  Botswana has given me and simply be grateful to “feel” how this benefits me. 

Never trust a fart and other travel tales

It is midday in a crowed market place in downtown La Paz, Baja California Sur when I realize what started as a feeling of being “slightly off” this morning is quickly turning into a tsunami in my bowels.  The smell of meat in the open air butcher shop is not helping my condition. I swat away the flies buzzing around both the hanging sides of beef and my head and suddenly, it hits me.  I need a bathroom and I need it NOW! I am too embarrassed to say what happened next, but I am sure you can guess.  As the saying goes, shit happens!

It was 1994 when two prairie farm kids decided to take two months off work and travel from Alberta, Canada to the tip of Baja California on motorcycles.  As kids, our family holidays consisted mostly of camping trips, ski holidays and trips to the big city of Calgary for back to school shopping.  International travel, was either outside the family budget or outside the family comfort zone.  Looking back, it no longer seems like such an epic adventure, but what we did not realize, is how pivotal that trip would be in our evolution both professionally and personally.  As veterinarians, leaving a mixed animal practice for two months to travel, was not done and, in hindsight, it was the first nail in the coffin of our failing partnership.  Leaving that prairie partnership, while terrifying, became the first step towards creating a life that was the right fit for us, rather than trying to make ourselves fit into the life we thought we should live.  From crashing my bike on a winding, mountain road in the northern California redwoods to stripping down to our swim suits so we could wash ALL our clothes in a small town laundromat, while the locals laughed at the crazy gringos, that trip left me wanting more. it changed the way I viewed myself, how I viewed the world and the way I viewed travel.

10399340_131207730934_2389399_n

Fast forward several years. We own our own practice, now have two small children and have finally managed to book a locum for a glorious two week holiday. We decide, it is time to have an adventure. The plan is for Rob to drive our Toyota truck, loaded with camping gear and supplies to San Diego.  I will stay and work for a few extra days, then the kids and I will drive 2 1/2  hours to Spokane, Washington (the nearest major airport) and fly to join Rob. From San Diego we will head south to Baja to recreate that epic trip, this time with two children in tow.  Finally the exciting day arrives.  Rob has made it to San Diego, enjoying 2 days of driving and blissful solitude along the way. The kids and I are on our way to the airport.  Suddenly a moment of inattention leaves me standing on the side of the road beside a crumpled car with two small, nicely shaken children.  A short ambulance ride and set of X-rays later and we determined to be intact and are discharged from the hospital . We once again I find myself standing beside the side of the road, holding a small pack filled with snacks and activities for the airplane as well as the hands of two small, nicely shaken children.  It is at this point my son, James looks at me and asks “Mom, what are we going to do now?”. I bend down, lean in and say in a cheery mom voice “Well, we are all okay and so we are going on this holiday.  I guess we will just have to hitch hike “.  Unknown to me, the driver who towed our car into town overheard us and quickly realized I was not kidding.  He kindly took pity on us and offered a ride.  It was an unfortunate start to what turned into an amazing trip.  From learning to do the stingray shuffle on the beach at Baja Conception to petting gray whales in their calving grounds at the Bay of San Ignacio, it introduced us to the joys of traveling with children. Seeing the world through their eyes, sharing adventures as a family and expanding their world, was for me, worth every episode of “shit happens”.

482384_10151534242640935_1796532490_n

The reasons for travel are as unique as the individuals who decide to take a journey. For us, travel was always a way to escape the pressures of our hectic life. To escape the internet, school pressures and just be together as a family.  An opportunity to realize the world over, humans wants and needs are the same and happiness is not necessarily dependent on money or status.  Then life moves along and the reasons change. Now there is no stress awaiting us upon return and the experience or journey becomes more important. We have discovered that having a community to connect with enriches the experience and working with organizations like the Maun Animal Welfare Society has allowed us to meet amazing people, interact with the local community and get a better sense of what life here is really like.  Tomorrow we head to the community of Shakawe a village in the northwest corner of Botswana where we will do daily outreach clinics over the next week. It will be hot, dirty and hard work but also a fun adventure, a chance to make new connections, see a new part of this country and, of course, to see what “shit happens”!

IMG_3016

For the love of dog

“To err is human, to forgive canine – unknown”

After two weeks volunteering with the Maun Animal Welfare Society (MAWS), I feel my jaded heart melting thanks to the amazing dogs of Botswana. While they come in all sizes and various shades of brown, white, tan and brindle, the best way to picture these sweet canines is to close your eyes and imagine Santa’s little helper, the cartoon dog from the Simpsons. They come to us in various states of condition, but the most common is painfully thin, often with pendulous nipples from nursing multiple litters and sometimes with unexplained injuries and wounds. They arrive at the clinic somewhat timid and fearful but amazingly, after what they have survived, with gentle care, food and a safe haven, they quickly warm up to us. After a few days we see their natural resiliency take over and we get to know their individual personalities.  The weary old girl who just wants a soft bed and kind word, the mischievous puppy determined to be the boss of every dog (and human) at MAWS and the fun-loving pest, constantly under foot and in our way.

A warning: the photos in this post may be upsetting to some readers. Please know my goal is not to shock but to simply report on our experience working as veterinarians in Maun, Botswana. It is easy to pass judgement and assume such things would never happen in another country, like Canada, for example. Sadly, this is not true, and my own dog Stella, is a living example of the ignorance and mistreatment that can lead to suffering of animals the world over.  When volunteering abroad as a professional, it is all to easy to assume “we know better”, however the reality is if we leave our judgements at home, we can learn something new and come away richer for the experience. I can guarantee there is no way we could sterilize 26 animals in 7 hours the way we do it at home!

IMG_2598
A local man sitting with his dog while she recovers from surgery

This blog is dedicated to the dogs of Maun, you’ve won my heart. You have taken me back to the beginning, why I was called to this profession and why I do what I do, to care for these creatures who share our lives. I have been a vet for 26.5 years and worked in veterinary hospitals since the age of 16 when I got my first “real” job at our families veterinary clinic.  That’s 34 years of puppy kisses, stinky messes, happy outcomes and sad goodbyes. A long journey from a wide-eyed teenager so very determined to become a veterinarian to a retired practice owner spaying dogs in the bush in Botswana. While I marvel at where those years went, what I find even more amazing is how I did it for 26+ years.

Veterinarians are a funny bunch and the reasons why we choose this profession are as unique as the individuals themselves. What seems like an amazing career is currently suffering from the highest rate of compassion fatigue, burnout and suicide of any profession in both North America and other parts of the world.  The selection process to gain acceptance into veterinary school rewards those who are competitive and independent.  Huge amounts of medical, surgical and scientific information are forced into our brains during our 6 to 8 years of training with little thought to the art of dealing with our true clients, the human at the end of the leash. We are given little instruction in the art of business and human resource management, needed to run a small business (news flash, veterinarians are not just doctors they are entrepreneurs). Add to this a lack of mentorship, high student debt, low salaries, huge client expectations/demands and online reputation slander and the multiple factors associated with veterinary burnout and depression become, if not clear, at least understandable. And yet, some of us thrive, laugh, build an amazing career and find ways to cope.  Family, an amazing partner (who just happens to be a vet too), strong friendships and an optimistic nature were my salvation.  But those who know me, know that over the last few years, it wore me down. Dealing with business matters, mentoring and training a team (even great people don’t just become a team without leadership) and difficult clients blinded me to the “fun side” of being a vet. The medicine, the good outcomes, helping make someone’s day a little brighter and the furry, four-legged beasts who called me to this professional were all getting a little lost in all the “other stuff” that running a practice entailed.

Since arrival we have sterilized so many animals, I have now lost count.  They come in with gums so pale pink, they are closer to white. We give anesthetic agents I would shudder to use at home, and yet our patients bounce back and recover despite my concerns.  These dogs are tough!  We have a lovely old lady hanging out at the clinic after being found with the most horrifying burn along her entire back. Apparently she was stealing eggs and someone threw boiling water on her. She is starting to trust us, is turning out to be a sweet and gentle girl and is going to recover.

She has little concern about the scar she will carry for the rest of her life and just wants to be loved.  We have another young girl awaiting surgery to amputate a limb who has been walking about on a stump of a hind leg with no pads, toes and a horribly infected leg.  How this happened, apparently no one knows, but she patiently lets us examine her painful limb with no attempts to snap or bite.

IMG_2670

So here I sit, on a little deck in Botswana, listening to the call of the cicadas, doves and various other evening creatures whose names I do not know and I feel the joy of being a vet creeping back.  What I am doing here is so basic compared to the level of care the pets in our old practice received.  No fancy cosmetic surgeries for stenotic nares, no diagnosis of autoimmune anemias or chemotherapy treatments to give a client a few more good months with a beloved companion.  Are we making a difference?  We hope so as it is the only skill I have to offer.  Does it really matter?  We’d like to think it does but the need is so overwhelming, it truly is hard to say.  On a World Vets trip last winter, a group of volunteers sat around debating exactly this question.  Are we actually making a difference when we come to a foreign country to sterilize and vaccinate dogs and cats or are we simply feeding our own ego? Volunteers threw out their opinions but the one that stayed with me came from a veterinary student, Emily, who said something to the effect of “for those animals you helped today, it made a difference and isn’t it better to do something than to do nothing?”.

Even if it is something small, in a world in need of so much more, sometimes a small thing is all you can do. Thank you dogs for forgiving us our humanness.

 

Puppies, Parasites and Penises

I can feel the sweat running down my back as I keep pace with the Black Keys pounding out of our little speaker and close the last spay of the day. I am hot, sweaty, most likely covered in ticks and bone tired but still… this is fun!

We left behind a foot of snow, one week ago to arrive in Botswana during the hottest season of the year. Just before we arrived daily temperatures were above 40 degrees and the landscape is dry and brown. Thankfully we have brought the rains with us and in the last week, evening showers that have magically turned the brown bushes green and brought some blessed relief from the heat. As I sit on our deck and listen the to the call of the hornbills and the cicadas chirping, it feels like we have been here far longer than a week.  We arrived in the capital of Botswana and our first order of business was to visit the Botswana Council of Veterinary Surgeons in order to swear our professional oath and become licensed to practice veterinary medicine in Botswana. A lovely couple Brian and Marilyn Garcin put us up for the night and we were well entertained with a private showing of Brian’s amazing art.  http://www.southafricanartists.com/artists/brian-garcin-6049

Wild dogs by Brian Garcin

From Gabarone, we flew on to Maun, a town of approximately 60,000. Maun is a busy hub for the numerous safari companies in Botswana, given is proximity to the Okavango Delta, and our home base for the next 7 weeks. We were met at the airport by one of the Maun Animal Welfare Society’s (MAWS) volunteers and transported through town and down a sandy track to a small cottage where we will live during our time here.  After dropping our packs, we headed off to check out the veterinary clinic where we were greeted by Gladys, a veterinary nurse from Austrailia who is also vounteering with MAWS. Friendly, confident and practical, we could quickly see it would be a great team.  We were disappointed to learn that she arrived 2 weeks before us and had been managing multiple challenging cases, on her own and was leaving in just another week! Poor timing for all of us, as a trained veterinary nurse or techinican makes surgery days flow more smoothly and we quickly learned that Gladys is a rockstar!

IMG_2522Our home away from home

We started work the next day, Saturday November 11, with a morning of sterilizations, hospitalized patients to check and learning the ropes.  In the afternoon Rob and I were called out to a property to check a group of sick dogs for a local family and experienced how many people in Botswana live.  To give you some idea, just know the cabin above is truly a palace by local standards.  Picture a sandy yard, about the size of an average Canadian yard, with one or two small buildings the size of a large garden shed made out of cinder blocks or bricks and mud, with an open air doorway and tin roof. Then add to that picture, a few straggly, brown trees 4 to 6 barefoot kids, plastic bottles and garbage laying about, 6 to 8 skinny dogs and several adults of different generations sitting in the shade or laying under trees on old mattresses. Rob and I did our best to examine the sick dogs, but we were up against some challenges. All of the dogs were very thin and not eating, but one of the dogs, the owners favorite, has been coughing. The owner tells us that last year he had a dog with similar signs and he died.  We have a stethoscope and thermometer, that’s it…. so what’s your diagnosis?  What is your treatment?  Distemper is common in dogs here and thankfully it did not look like distemper, but the list of possible diseases is long including everything from parasites, like lungworm or heartworm, to infectious diseases and even cancer.  We have no laboratory facilities, not even a microscope and any diagnostic work we can do is extremely limitied. We do what we can, which is basically vaccinate, deworm and prescribe doxycycline (the dogs are covered in ticks, anemic and most have chronic erhlicia infections). We cross our fingers and hope it helps. Sterilization, deworming and vaccinations are the most important contributions we can make. Reducing the pet population, reducing the parasite load, and controlling preventable diseases is vitally important here and helps keep the human community healthier and safer (roaming dog packs can attack livestock and people) as well as reducing the risk of rabies and distemper in susceptible wildlife populations.

IMG_2536Property where we did a house call

As I finish writing this post, it is now Wednesday evening, November 15 and we have completed our first four days with MAWS.  The number of animals sterilized is as follows: Saturday 12, Monday 22, Tuesday 21 and Wednesday 21 for a grand total of 76 in 4 days.  We will be working in the Maun clinic for two more days, then on Saturday and Sunday we will head off into the bush to do a mobile spay and neuter clinic in a more remote rural area without access to veterinary care. In addition to sterilizations we have also examined and treated animals brought in for various reasons. Injuries from being hit by vehicles are common, as are thin, anorexic and vaguely ill animals. The most interesting cases include a puppy who was bitten by a scorpion (so far recovering well) and another pup who had suffered an injury to his prepuce (sheath) which allowed his penis to prolapse out to the side. The wound was quite old and scarred down but we were able to close things up nicely. Rob says if anyone needs some cosmetic surgery on your we we, he can hook you up with a cracker jack surgeon!

Recovery room, getting ready for surgery and Puppy kisses

To finish off this post, I am going to leave you with some insider information on Botswana. Questions your dying to ask but were afraid of the answer:

  1.  Enjoy your one ply toilet paper, even two ply is just a distant dream you spoiled princess.
  2. If you are a vegetarian, be prepared to eat chicken because apparently it is not really meat.
  3. Your bathing suit is actually a “costume” – to all those Rosslanders who love a good costume theme party, just head to the local pool and your good to go.
  4. Don’t drive at night, the donkeys are out and seem to prefer the middle of the road.
  5. Stay left, look right, in Botswana you drive on the left side of the road.  Rob, our fearless driver of “Trevor” (the old truck available for our use), has almost got it down. Thankfully the roads are not to busy! My high pitched yelps help to alert him when he reverts to his Canadian right side of the road driving habit.
  6. Beware the miniture ants, they can consume one hundred times their body weight overnight. Christmas bugs are everywhere. Their main goal seems to be to buzz into me, fall onto the floor and die. Because we are lazy slobs, we let them lay about and by evening a swarm of teeny, tiny ants has gathered about their bug carcasses as if preforming some strange memorial rites and by morning, bug body and ants have disappeared. We are concerned that before the 7 weeks are up, they will one night run out of bugs and devour us in our sleep.
  7. Acuna matata is really thing – everyone we have so far, has been friendly, helpful interested in us and interesting to us.  What a great start to this adventure. Don’t worry, be happy. Botswana is not Canada, but isn’t that the point?

IMG_2503

Botswana Bound

In 24 hours we will be on our way to Botswana. This will be my second visit to Botswana  but for Rob it will be his third trip. Our primary reason for heading off to Africa is to volunteer as veterinarians with two amazing organizations. Well, honestly the reality is that we LOVE Africa and being able to offer our skills to these two great organizations is a bonus! Being animal nerds we both grew up watching Wild Kingdom and dreaming of someday visiting Africa. For us, it is magical to see, smell and hear the wildlife on this continent and putting in long days as volunteer vets is well worth the pay off of time in this amazing country.

IMG_2450

During our time in Africa we will be representing the Canadian Animal Assistance Team  or CAAT which is partnering with a local organization, the Maun Animal Welfare Society or MAWS. CAAT was founded in 2005, in response to the overwhelming need for veterinary care in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Since this time, CAAT has expanded an its primary focus is on running animal health care projects in low-income communities with limited or no access to veterinary services for their animal both in Canada and abroad.  This organization is completely volunteer driven and does amazing work.  If you are interested in learning more about CAAT or donating, check out their website and know your donation dollars are being put to great use www.caat-canada.org 

Located in Maun Botswana, MAWS provides free veterinary services to low income villagers across Botswana.  The primary focus of our time in Maun will be providing spay, neuter and vaccination clinics to reduce pet overpopulation in the area as well as emergency veterinary services and treatments. We will also visit rural areas and set up mobile outreach clinics on an as needed basis.  In Botswana, villagers live side-by-side with Botswana’s rich and varied wildlife. MAWS work helps to prevent the transmission of rabies and canine distemper: diseases which can decimate wildlife including the African Wild Dog, lions, leopards and cheetahs. In addition to veterinary care, MAWS works to reunite, rehome, and rehabilitate lost, found, and stray animals. Check out their website at www.maunanimalwelfare.com

So how do you pack for 7 weeks in Botswana?  We find travelling with just a carry on is the best option. No worries about lost luggage and easy to make your connection gates when you  like to travel cheap and have multiple connections enroute to the final destination.  We will fly from Spokane WA to Seattle WA, Washington DC to Addis Ababa Ethiopia, then on to Livingstone, Zambia and finally to Gabarone Botswana. After an overnight in Gabarone in order to get our veterinary licences in order with the Botswana authorities we will fly to Maun.  Hey, the price was right and as Rob says if you aren’t having fun, then you better have a good story! After a short overnight rest we will start work the following day.

IMG_2422.JPG

Nigel helping us pack

After traveling with different types of luggage from traditional suitcases, duffel bags to backpacks we are firmly in the backpack camp of travellers.  As our age increases our pack size and weight decreases. This is lucky as our flight from Washington DC to Addis Ababa Ethiopia allows only one 7 kg carry on and one 5 kg personal item. In addition to the clothes I will wear, here is my packing list: 3 short sleeve t-shirts, 1 long sleeve sun shirt , 2 pairs of shorts, bathing suit, socks, undies, pair of sandals, sun hat, rain coat, first aid kit, toiletry kit, spare reading glasses, sunglasses, eReader, various charging cables, water bottle stuffed with Kind bars, a headlamp with spare batteries and a small bluetooth speaker to rock out during surgeries! Rob’s pack is pretty similar but includes a couple big bags of monocryl suture, bug spray, sunscreen and our laptop.

Initially we had planned to spend Christmas in Africa with our cool and amazing kids, then continue traveling after the holidays and see more of Africa. However plans have changed, as it was not possible to get the entire family to Botswana so we have booked our return flights to Canada in order to spend Christmas together. We do have some fun things planned for 2018 but will keep them secret for now (don’t want to jinx it)!

More to follow in the weeks to come. Next post will be from abroad!

IMG_2442.JPG