Can you teach an old dog new tricks? As a veterinary professional, I hope you will agree that yes, you can teach that old dog something new. It just might require a little more patience and a lot more enticing motivators! This fall I am about to explore this idea of “old dogs” and “new tricks” on a personal level when at 52 I head back to university. On a good day, I am energized and excited by the prospect. On all the other days I wonder what was I thinking, is this my mid-life crisis?
We each have a story. One that led up to where we are today and, like those “Choose your own Adventure” books I loved to read with my kids, we have no idea where the story leads. I am about to go to page 104 to find out.
Veterinarian, wife, mother, daughter, friend. A story I suspect is not so different from many of yours. It was a full and busy life negotiating through the challenges and joys of each role but then in 2016, I hit a wall. At the time it took me by surprise. For as long as I can remember I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved being a vet in a small community. Supporting the bond my clients shared with their pets fulfilled and defined me in so many ways. I had a supportive partner, a beautiful new purpose-designed hospital, an engaged and loyal team, and a thriving practice. Looking back, it shouldn’t have surprised me. Our practice was growing rapidly and I was struggling to find the energy needed for my hands-on management style while also working as a veterinarian and fulfilling the other roles in my life. I would start each day with enthusiasm but the non-stop needs of this beast we had created, left me drained by days end. Together, my partner (and husband) looked at ways to put the life back in our lifestyle and it was during one of these conversations that it became apparent just how was burnt out I had become. As we brainstormed strategies to manage our practice and also take care of ourselves, he said, “Just 10 more years, Elaine. In 10 more years, we can sell”. I told him I couldn’t live like this for 10 more years and he suggested 5, at which point I broke down and through my tears admitted I didn’t think I could go on for 5 more days, let alone 5 more years! I stopped sobbing and we looked at each other. It was time to make a new plan.
If you want to “suck it up” and continue managing your own practice turn to page 48.
If you want to hire a practice manager and make yourself less available to your clients and your team go to page 63.
If you want to sell your practice and jump into an uncertain future go to page 85.
We chose page 85.
Page 85 turned out to be a very good choice. It took us around the world, working as volunteer veterinarians and gave us the time and space needed to figure out the next chapter of our story. While working on volunteer projects in hot, humid and challenging conditions with severely limited resources I rediscovered the joy of being a veterinarian and my passion for not only my profession but also the people in it. I met amazing young veterinarians and veterinary technicians from around the world and as we worked together I admired their skill and dedication but discovered a darker narrative of frustration and disillusionment that so many were experiencing in their professional lives at home. Dysfunctional workplaces, long hours, high student debt, low pay, unrealistic client expectations, and burnout were a far too common theme in our profession. As we discussed the challenges facing the veterinary profession I knew it was time to do more than talk about the issues, I needed to find ways to effect positive change and move our profession forward to a happier and more productive place. I started to pay more attention to the dynamics of these volunteer teams and was fascinated by how quickly a group of strangers could come together and become a cohesive team. Able to deliver veterinary care in the most challenging of conditions. I considered the effectiveness of different leadership styles and how they influenced not only the team members but also the success of the project. No longer the leader myself, it was eye-opening to experience the impact of leadership at a personal level. I started to explore the science of positive psychology as well as the characteristics and habits of happy people and I was fascinated by the effect workplace culture had on employee satisfaction, retention and productivity. This, I felt, might hold one of the secrets to healing our profession. Maybe it wasn’t about having it all. Maybe it was about having enough.
I had reached another turning point in my story.
If you want to continue working part-time as a volunteer and locum veterinarian go to page 92.
If you want to start a new career trajectory at age 52 go to page 104.
The decision has been made and when I flip to page 104 next week, I will be a student at Royal Roads University enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Values-Based Leadership. I am excited and also a little terrified. But I believe in the power of positive leadership. Inspired leaders, community, connection and a culture of cooperation, are needed as we create a new narrative that will guide us through the challenges facing the veterinary profession in the years ahead.
Considering my training for the Tour Aotearoa involved floating in the Caribbean Sea drinking considerable amounts of rum, followed by baking all the favourite Christmas cookies with my daughter Hannah (and eating all said cookies) and then enjoying 3 weeks of delicious Mexican food washed down with large volumes of beer, at 800km into my journey I am doing okay. As we peddle, Rob wishes for bigger legs to carry him up New Zealand’s significant hills while I wish for a smaller ass to carry up those hills!
I guess I have always loved bicycles but my love affair with the bicycle was not the typical “love at first sight” kind of romance. It started slowly, kind of like that guy who was just a friend. You know the one. The guy who your friends would ask you about and with a laugh, you’d say, “What, Bob? No, no we’re just pals.” A get a beer after work and have a few laughs kinda guy.A solid friend who was there when you needed him until suddenly you realized, he’d become something more. Bicycles for me were kinda like that guy. A way to release some teenage angst and sadness, a break from my studies in university, an escape to forget about the stress at work and then suddenly in my middle age the realization hit that being on my bicycle was one of my happy places.
Through the fog of time, I recall my first bicycle. A two wheeled beauty with a banana seat, high bars and (I think) tassels coming off the handle bars that fluttered in the wind. I recall my older sister and I using cardboard and clothespins on the spokes to make a our bicycles sound like a motorcycle. The faster you rode, the more impressive the sound. Growing up on the farm I also had a horse. A beautiful pinto quarter horse creatively named Patches. For a period I forgot my bicycle as my mother created elaborate matching outfits complete with embellished saddle pads for my sister and I to ride in the local summer parades. It was great fun, but I do recall being a little jealous of my cousins who decorated their bicycles and donned costumes to ride with the other town kids during those same parades.
Eventually, I graduated to a big kid bike. An old school 10 speed, yellowish-beige in color with classic drop bars and skinny tires. I likely bought it with money saved from babysitting or raising pail bunters (dairy calves I would buy and feed until they were old enough to go on pasture). In my teenage years, I rode it regularly, around the block, a 6 mile trip on the grid-like gravel roads in rural Alberta. It was an escape, a place where no one could find me and where I had a good 30 minutes to work through all the “stuff” my teenage brain was dealing with. Occasionally I would make the 10-mile trek to town enjoying 4 miles of paved roads and soft serve at the local creamery as a reward.
After my acceptance into veterinary school in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan I decided it was time for a new bike.This would be daily transportation to campus (until winter arrived) and needed to be a solid bike which could also transport me on regular escapes along the Saskatchewan river trails running through the city.The Trek Antelope 520 was my first steel frame, old school mountain bike. With state of the art Shimano shifters and high-end caliber brakes, in 1987, it was a sweet ride and one that set me back $550. A huge purchase for a broke student but in the end supplied me with a cycle that traveled with me for 25 years!
As I cover the miles through New Zealand I daydream my days away. Passing the time thinking about a great number of meaningless things. It is a great way to travel. On a bicycle, you slow down and are forced to not just see the country you travel through but to also experience it. You take the good with the bad.The first warm sun that hits your face as it rises over the hills on those early morning starts along with the brutal headwinds that slow your progress and cause you to curse. The delicious smells coming from the local bakery as you pass through a small town along with the nasty road kill odor that lingers long after you pass by. People talk to you when you are on a bicycle and are quick to offer help or to join you for a coffee. But perhaps best of all is the satisfaction that comes from propelling yourself by your own determination and with the strength of your legs.
Since my last blog Kiwis are Cool: Bikepacking New Zealand, we reached Dargaville and have made our way south passing back through Auckland, east through Hunua towards the Bay of Plenty, South along the Hauraki Rail trail, through Matamata, the Waikato River Trails and have just finished riding the Timber Trail arriving in Taumaruni last night.I think we have traveled about 800 Km of the Tour Aotearoa route as well as several hundred km of extra riding on the way to Cape Regina. Tomorrow we continue on to a challenging ride on some paved roads and gravel but mostly single track in a remote area that ends at the Whanganui River and involves an hour journey by boat to reach Pipiriki.Sounds challenging but super fun. Here is a map of our journey so far.
So far the Tour Aotearoa has been a great adventure and I am so grateful to be able to experience New Zealand by bicycle.Highlights (for me) from this portion of the journey include:
-sleeping in Dave’s old caravan (trailer) outside Auckland
-finding a handlebar riser to bring my bars up and back a little.I now look like I should carry a bottle of wine and baguette in a cute little basket on the front of my bike.Come to think of it that is a GREAT idea!
-Staying at the Bike Bunker in Hunua. A real bed, an ensuite shower and great conversation.
-Arriving at Miranda Hot Springs Holiday Park with no food and no groceries and having the park manager offer to drive us to town, over 20km away to pick up supplies.
-Morning coffee at the Bugger Cafe. So tasty after several days of instant coffee!
-Almost free camping at Brock’s Place (aka some farmers field).
-Hobbiton. Okay, call me a nerd but it was super cool.
-Arriving at Arapuni and finding an amazing backpackers with a warm, dry room to sit out the rain that night. Steve the host at Arapuni backpackers is a gem.
-The ride from Arapuni to Taumaruni.Waikato River Trails, Ride to Timber trail and Timber Trail. Good to be back on mountain biking trails, even with overloaded bikes.
-Scoring free camping at Piropiro DOC site but enjoying a delicious hot meal at the Timber Lodge.
-Sending 10 kg of crap we don’t need to our new friend Rod, (who we met on the street one day while looking lost). Rod lives in Auckland and we will pick it up when we exit New Zealand. Oh and Rod and his lovely wife Lynn (who we’ve never met) have offered us a bed the night before we leave New Zealand. These Kiwis are the BEST!
And finally what makes an adventure truly memorable is the people who join you on the journey. Hanging out with my partner in life and best friend has been pretty great too. He would probably travel faster and lighter if he ditched the wife, but thankfully it hasn’t come to that…yet.
News flash, and this should not come as a surprise, but maybe once you hit your 50’s the bottom bunk in a dorm of 20 something backpackers may not be the wisest choice. It is after midnight on a Wednesday and the young guests talk in whispers and quiet giggles as they get to know each other and make a new, and temporary family while they are far from home. It is clean and modern and is not a “party” hostel, at least not tonight but still I cannot sleep. Rob and I have taken the bottom bunks in our 4 person dorm as we are the most likely ones to need a middle of the night trip to the bathroom. Of course we were the first ones to head off for sleep and despite my ear plugs, the snores coming from the bunk above, the oppressive heat and the smell of 4 pairs of sweaty, backpacker shoes (my own included) has kept the sandman away. So here I sit writing.
I suspect these youngsters do not know what to make of us. “Mom and Dad” ruining the vibe. We ate lunch at a cafe today and the young waitress who served me noticed we were riding bicycles. She struck up a conversation, as these New Zealanders are likely to do, and the topic of my children came up. She asked how old they were and at my reply said, “No that is crazy, they are my age. That means you are the about the age of my mom… and she is very old”. Touché, my dear, touché. At times like tonight, sleeping in a dorm bed at a backpackers hostel, I feel very old and just a little out of place. I wonder what the hell we are doing, living like gypsies, sleeping with strangers? Tomorrow we will be back in the Hubba Hubba, our cosy tent as we continue our journey down the length of New Zealand and one thing is sure, these crazy Kiwi’s will keep surprising us with their hospitality.
We have been here about three weeks and have a growing list of contacts in our phones to use “in case you run into trouble, dear”. Random people see the bikes and strike up a conversation which usually ends something like this. “If you happen to find yourself in Gisborne, be sure to come by and stay with me”.And here’s the crazy thing, they really mean it. If two tired and stinky cyclists happen to turn up on Ruth from Gisborne’s door step, I am sure she would be pleased as punch and pick up the conversation where we last left off!
A few days ago we took a 6 hour boat charter in order to cross the Hokianga Harbour, part of the Tour Aotearoa route.We arrived rested and decided to ride into Auckland that night.A 5:30 start meant we would likely run out of daylight but we hoped to hit the cycle way into the city before dark, allowing us to avoid the morning rush hour traffic which is not a fun experience on New Zealand’s busy highways. The ride took longer than expected and before we knew it we were riding in the pitch black along a secondary highway. About 25 km outside the city limits, a car passed us, slowed down and then pulled over to wait for us to ride by. Despite our lights, we expected to get a good scolding for being out in the dark. The older man who greeted us, asked where we were going at this time of night and then questioned if we had a place to stay lined up in Auckland. After our non-committal response he suggested we follow him home and, if it was up to our “standards”, he had an old caravan in his yard that we were welcome to stay in for the night. Then tonight at dinner, the cafe owner came over and sat down with us and started chatting. The next thing we knew, we were invited to camp in his yard tomorrow night, “no worries mate, I have lots of space, a salt water pool and you can enjoy a beautiful sunset there”. I am not kidding, hasn’t anyone told these people about stranger danger? Why are they so doggone nice?
It makes me think of a time, not so long ago, in our own country where we were more likely to pick up a stranger by the side of the road, or open our door to a person in need. To take the time to sit and talk with someone and actually listen to them. What has happened to us? Are we too busy, too self involved or just too afraid?Afraid of them, the mass of humanity out there? Or are we afraid of ourselves and what that mass of humanity may think of us if we step outside our comfort zone and put ourselves out there ripe for rejection?
Food for thought.
Ear plugs in and now its off to try and find some good dreams. Good night.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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, Ilike hostelling and Hostel Polako a little hostel in Trebinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, was my favorite hostel experience.
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.
No one used the spit basin because if you stay in hostels you’re probably not the type to waste free wine!
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”?
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.
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.
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.
I am excited to share with you the story of our journey from practice owners to volunteer veterinarians. I recently submitted this article to the West Coast Veterinary Journal and had my story published. Very exciting for me (I know, it is pretty small potatoes but pretty cool to see my words in print)! Hope you enjoy and please feel free to share!
I cannot figure out how to attach a link to the original article as the West Coast Veterinary Journal a private publication for members of the Society of BC Veterinarians. I am sure there is a way but my old brain isn’t so good with this shit. Anyway, below the jpeg image of the article, I have posted my original submission which will be much easier to read, I hope!
Will Spay for Food
The life you have led, doesn’t need to be the only life you have
Knowing it is time for a change is easy if you listen to your heart. Actually setting the wheels in motion to make that change, is the hard part. For most of us, it is fear that holds us back. Fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of disappointment. It is far too easy to listen to that voice in your head, the one ruled by fear, instead of taking a chance and seeing where life can lead you if you are willing to make a change.
I love to travel and in 2011, had the opportunity, together with my then 11 year old daughter, to volunteer for 4 days with the Mexi-Can Veterinary Project in Jaltemba Bay, Mexico. This was my first international sterilization project and it planted a seed.But how do you marry a career in private veterinary practice and raising a family with a desire to see the world? It isn’t always easy, especially if you live in a rural community and are married to another veterinarian with whom you own a practice. Our solution was to book locums and drag our kids around the world on family ”adventures”. Eventually, those children grew and left to pursue their own adventures, leaving us at home, running our business and a just a little envious of the exciting journeys they were about to embark upon. Perhaps this was the catalyst we needed.
In 2017 we decided it was time. Time to see where life might lead two middle-aged, vets if they were willing to sell their practice, embrace the unknown and embark on a new journey. Prior to the sale of our practice we had started to explore the world of international volunteerism and found, not only was there a huge need worldwide for veterinary volunteers, but we were we well suited to this type of work. We would return from each project energized, with a renewed passion for our chosen profession. To date, we have worked with the Equitarian Initiative, World Vets, the Canadian Animal Assistance Team and the Maun Animal Welfare Society, the Spanky Project and currently Carriacou Animal Hospital. These projects have taken us to Costa Rica, Ecuador, Botswana, Cuba and Grenada.
So what inspires successful practice owners to give it all up, to live on the road and work for free? It would be easy to stay home, keep doing what is comfortable and experience the world through yearly vacations and the discovery channel. In many ways, it would also be the safe path, but by doing so we would miss out on so many life changing experiences. And perhaps more importantly, we would miss out on meeting the remarkable human beings who have opened their homes and shared their lives with us.
In Costa Rica, I worked with a group of dedicated equine veterinarians. Their goal “to sustainably improve working equid health by harnessing the passion and expertise of volunteer veterinarians”, appealed to me. Despite that fact that it had been 20 years since I had done any work with horses, the Equitarian Initiative volunteers accepted me, a small animal vet, without reservation. Perhaps, in part, because I provided some comic relief! I recall one spry, older gentleman who arrived with his very elderly horse for the free clinic explaining why his horse was so important to him. During certain times of the year, the river flooded, cutting off his access to town. His horse, however, could still cross the river allowing him to get to church on Sundays and maintain his contact with the community. The love he shared with his equine companion was just as strong as any we Canadians share with our pampered pets!
Working with World Vets in Ecuador, I marveled as over the course of a week a group of individuals with unique personalities, backgrounds and a wide range of ages became fast friends. The small town we were working in was well aware of our presence. Early each morning, as we boarded a bus to head to the campaign, local people would run up, dogs in tow and ask if we could take their pets to be sterilized. We would each grab a pet, bring it on the bus and head off with a few extra surgeries for the day. If you are traveling solo, volunteering with World Vets provides you with an instant group of like minded traveling companions, accommodation and the chance to experience a new culture while providing veterinary care in a unique part of the world.
In Cuba, we joined forces with the Spanky Project, founded by Canadian, Terry Shewchuck and named after his beloved dog. The Spanky Project arose from Terry’s love of Cuba and a desire to improve the lives of the dogs and cats he met during his travels. This group of passionate people works with the University of Havana veterinary school and local Cuban veterinarians to exchange ideas, provide much needed materials and medications and most importantly mentorship to the Cuban veterinary community.Working with the students and enjoying the energy and enthusiasm they brought to the project was very rewarding. Many students commented that they would learn more about small animal anesthesia, surgery and recovery during the Spanky Project than they would in the university curriculum. Some of the Cuban veterinarians volunteering this year had participated in past campaigns as students themselves.After being mentored by Spanky volunteers, they were back to give their time, improve their anesthesia and surgical skills and help mentor a new group of students during the 2018 campaign.A great example of international collaboration and sustainability.
Botswana and the Maun Animal Welfare Society (MAWS) holds a very special place in our hearts. Rob volunteered with MAWS, through the Canadian Animal Assistance Team, in April and in November we both signed up for a 6 week commitment. Through their dedicated clinic located in Maun, as well as remote outreach clinics, MAWS provides free veterinary services to low income villagers across Botswana. Living in the MAWS cottage we woke early to enjoy a chorus of birds and cicadas as we prepared for the long day ahead. Working with very limited resources and supplies we sterilized and vaccinated animals until we were ready to drop. It took us back to our early years building our own practice and we came home each night, exhausted but happier than we had been in years.
The stories of how these animals arrive in our care humble us. We are reminded again and again of the resiliency of our patients and their will to survive, thrive and be happy.There was “old girl”, who came to us after having boiling water thrown on her back for stealing eggs. During her stay at MAWS, we saw her fearfulness disappear and her sweet, gentle nature emerge. And little pup, who stayed with us after surgical repair of a preputial injury and within days was bossing around the adult dogs. Often amputation is a practical and life saving option in countries with little resources and nonexistent surgical aftercare. I fell in love with one amputee from a cattle outpost who had lost her paw after being caught in a snare. She arrived in skeletal condition but still running happily on the stump of her infected metatarsals! A proper amputation gave her the gift of a pain free life. Their affectionate nature and joyful exuberance in the face of such a harsh existence is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, in equal measures.
In a small village in Botswana, we met a young boy of 12 years who arrived at the outreach clinic with his dog and another small child in his care. He asked if he could stay with his dog during the surgery because, in his words “My dog is a good dog, but he is afraid and will be comforted by my presence”.We advised him this was just fine and as we sedated and started surgery on his much loved dog Rob began to talk to him. The boy intently watched Rob preform and an ovariohysterectomy and explain what he was doing. When Rob paused, the boy looked at him 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 said the benefits to us were not something you could see or touch, like money. He said that we loved visiting Botswana and think it is a very special place. We love the wild animals and by sterilizing the dogs and vaccinating them we were helping to keep both the dogs and the wildlife 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 Rob said that we were lucky to be in a situation where we could help the people and dogs of Botswana. He then said to the boy, “Perhaps someday you will remember us and how we helped your dog and this will remind you to help someone too. By paying it forward, each of us can do our part to make the world a better place”.
With any volunteer project there are also frustrations. At the end of a long day, we have asked ourselves what it is about this work that draws us in an keeps us coming back for more. The days are long, hard and we usually come home hot, tired and smelling of urine. We are practicing veterinary medicine with the most basic of tools to service the neediest 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 sometimes 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 be “dog” tired and know we did some good today. If we are honest, we started this journey for selfish reasons, looking for adventure and escape from the stresses of practice ownership. But 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 a few days or weeks?
As a middle class Canadian, I live a life of privilege, compared to the vast majority of the world’s population. Working as a volunteer veterinarian has driven home this point and also made me realize how very little I need to be happy. I have discovered that what often appears straightforward on the surface, is actually very complicated. As a volunteer, it is important to critically consider the impact you have on a culture and the long term ramifications of your actions. This work has challenged me to be more resourceful, open minded and adaptable. But perhaps, most of all, it has taught me that there really is more good than bad in the world (despite what the media may lead you to believe) and if you travel with an open mind, an open heart and a big smile you will be amazed at where it will take you.
Since March 26, Rob and I have been hanging out on a chill little island in the Caribbean. In exchange for a free bed, we are offering up our veterinary skills to the Carriacou Animal Hospital, the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou. Let me tell you this gig is one sweet deal! While Rob and I live at the hospital and are available for walk in appointments and emergencies, the relaxed pace, instant social life and beautiful turquoise sea just a few steps away is ample reward for the work we provide.
So where the heck is Carriacou? Located in the South eastern Caribbean Sea and one of the Grenadine islands, Carriacou is a two hour ferry ride north east of Grenada.
The population of the island is listed as 8000 but locals suggest this may be inflated by seasonal visitors and a more realistic number may be 6000.In either case, at just 13 square miles, it’s a pretty small place and to our delight, has a very authentic Caribbean vibe. It is a place that seams stuck in time, with friendly locals, small shops and restaurants with glimpses ofbeautiful white sand beaches and a turquoise Caribbean Sea from every vantage point.
So what does a typical day at Carriacou Animal Hospital look like?Most days we awaken early to the frenzied sound of the hospital’s yard dogs barking at the passing garbage truck. We lounge under our mosquito net and listen to the ocean waves as we plan our morning.Coffee is the first priority, then while one of us attends to the animals in our care, the other begins emptying garbages, sweeping and cleaning the cabin before our clients and patients arrive. We clean kennels, wash wounds, give medications and make sure all our charges have had some exercise and some love before we head to the beach to relax for a bit with toes buried in the soft sand and our morning coffee in hand.
The hospital officially opens at 8:30 am, but clients trickle in at any time of day, often as they are passing by and remember they need advice or medication. In Carriacou, appointments and surgeries are rarely planned very far in advance. After all, this is the Caribbean, relax man and go with the flow! The amazing and upbeat Lorraine, arrives at 8:30 and starts to organize our day. She manages to juggle phone calls, client requests, finding lost files and confused volunteers with a laugh and smile. Clients are called a day ahead to schedule elective surgeries but our days rarely go as planned. Carriacou is a small place and it is often while out in the community that the founder of Carriacou Animal Hospital, Kathy or Nadine, the head veterinarian, will be met by local people asking “Are you the vets? I have a dog that needs to be cut.” The local term for sterilization, either a spay or neuter surgery, is to have your dog “cut”.They will take a name, phone number and try to find out where the dog lives and then set up a time for surgery, usually as soon as possible.
Some days our surgeries arrive at the hospital between 8:30 and 9:00 am and we get an early start, but often the clinic team needs to travel and pick up our patients at home. Many locals rely on public transportation and cannot take animals on the bus. After following the winding roads up hillsides and into small communities, we now have to catching our patients.While most dogs are friendly, they have not all been socialized to strangers and this can take a good part of our morning. We sedate them onsite and arrive back at the clinic ready to start surgery.
During most of our time at Carriacou Animal Hospital we did not have a veterinary technician/nurse, but instead had 3 veterinarians, myself, Rob and Dr. Nadine. One of us would assist the “surgeon” for the day while the other would see appointments that dropped in, wash surgical instruments and attend to laundry.As patients recover through the afternoon we write up charts and finish with instrument sterilization and cleaning. Sometimes there are emergency calls about animals which had been “bumped”, the local term for being hit by a vehicle and sadly, a common occurrence on the island. Other days we see walk in appointments or attend to scheduled house calls to check on patients or treat animals whose owners have no transportation.
By mid to late afternoon our patients are awake and ready to be delivered home, to their thankful owners. Now its time to relax and cool off in the turquoise sea, that is literally steps away, while we watch the most spectacular sunsets.
Similar to veterinary hospitals around the world, everyday brings something new through the doors of Carriacou Animal Hospital. For me, this variety, is one of the things I love most about my chosen profession; life as a vet is never dull and there is always something new to learn! Our patients are usually covered in fleas and ticks and heartworm infection is extremely common here.
Educating clients about preventative treatments and their importance is a routine part of every client visit. Tick Fever is extremely common on Carriacou and can present with a variety of symptoms. Interestingly enough, we have found the amount of bleeding during surgery seems to be less severe than with our erhlicia infested patients in Botswana. Nutritional advice is also much needed on the island. Locals commonly feed puppies bread and milk. Dog food, while available, is expensive and not commonly used. Part of our job is educating people about the importance of nutrition and protein in a puppies diet. Sometimes the smallest changes and advice can have a huge impact on the health of the local dog population.
Injuries, accidental and deliberate are also common in the local dog population. Burns, gunshot wounds and fractures (sometimes secondary to malnutrition and often the result of trauma) are just a few of the cases we have treated.
Ridge’s burn when we arrived
Almost healed and ready to go home soon!
The local dog population is a mix of breeds with the average size adult dog weighing between 10 to 20 kg. Mixed breed Pit Bulls are popular with the islands young men and occasionally we see pups that look like they have some type of herding breed in there background.
Elaine with our tiny patient
Suspected greenstick fracture mid-tibia
Being the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou, we also get calls to treat the occasional sheep or goat. One sheep arrived for emergency wound care after being attacked by the neighbours pit bull.Another little orphaned lamb came in to treat an abscessed hoof. In general, however, livestock concerns are referred to the local agriculture veterinary department.
While the hospital was started to provide veterinary care to the local population and their pets, as a way to give back and provide a desperately needed service, Carriacou Animal Hospital also provides care to the local expat population.Export permits are commonly needed as well as routine preventative care for pets that are lucky enough to spend part of the year in the Caribbean with their owners.
Founded in 2012, Carriacou Animal Hospital is an independent non-profit veterinary hospital. The hospital does not receive public funding and is staffed entirely by volunteer veterinarians and veterinary technicians/nurses. Volunteers often fundraise at home, prior to their trip to Carriacou, bringing with them much needed medications and supplies. Minimal fees are charged in order to cover the cost of delivering this much needed service. However, the hospital’s main goal is to provide care for the animals in most need, often those whose owners cannot afford treatment.Clients are NEVER turned away due to lack of financial resources and patients are treated, without question or judgement, with the goal of alleviating distress and suffering and providing the necessary care for each individual patient. Check out their website at www.carriacouanimalclinic.com to learn more or donate to this wonderful project. You can also follow Carriacou Animal Hospital on Facebook: www.facebook.com/CarriacouAnimalHospital.
While it is easy to tell you about our work days, the patients we see and the fun activities we have experienced in Carriacou, it is harder to put into words the cultural experience of volunteering as a veterinarian on this small island. Carriacou is not what Ipictured when envisioning the Caribbean. It has a small town feel, it is not yet a “hot” tourist destination and on most beaches you will them completely to yourself. There are no all inclusive resorts and the restaurants, for the most part, are small and locally owned.
While the local people are friendly and welcoming, there is no doubt that you are an outsider. I find it interesting that there are several unique “communities” that coexist in Carriacou and between these “communities” there is a wide range of values and of course wealth. After spending the day doing house visits to families living in abject poverty we would often return to the hospital and see super yachts anchored just off shore. I am talking yachts that are towing at least one speed boat as well as 3 jet skis and rent for $800 000 USD per week! The yachting community and other expats who spend part of their year living in the Caribbean, while not all are of the uber-wealthy super yacht set, are definitely part of the “haves” of the world (as are we). There are also the local Carriacou families who were born here but moved away as children or young adults, often to Britain, to be called back to the simple way of life and family values that tied them to the islands. Finally there are the locals who have grown up on the island and never left. They may be fisherman, tradesmen, running a small business and raising their families here on the island, proud of their home and heritage. For the most part, all co-exist peacefully on this beautiful island, but the disparity in wealth is ever present and more obvious given the small size of Carriacou.
Since hitting the road in November, I have tried to be an observer and record what I see, letting the experience of being in the moment and using the skills I have acquired, guide me. I am sure as time passes and I process these experiences I will find a more articulate way to express what I have learned. Right now, I feel extreme gratitude for all the blessings I have in my life, my health, my family and most of all, the one over which I really had no control; my good fortune in the genetic lottery of life.How very luck to be born into a middle class family in Canada with the intelligence, drive and opportunity at my disposal. Seeing families living in poverty unlike what many of us can imagine, drives this gratitude home. How to help those less fortunate, whether at home or abroad, living in the cycle of poverty and despair, is so complicated it leaves me feeling quite helpless. Over the last 6 months, the problem of the worlds overconsumption as become more real to me. The amount of garbage and waste we find in the country side and the ocean, coupled with over packaging and lack of recycling is disheartening to say the least. Living out of a backpack, makes it easier to reduce consumption and consumerism but the real test will be finding ways to continue this positive change upon our return home. This journey has made me more mindful of my own consumption as well as questioning my western values and lifestyle.
In 10 days we will leave Carriacou and start a new journey in a new part of the world. We will take with us two new friendships and the knowledge that we will be back again to work with this amazing charily in November.Stay tuned for more adventures and more ramblings from a mind unleashed in the weeks to come. And yes, I will be feeling very guilty about my carbon footprint when I get on that plane.