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.

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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”.

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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”!

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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!

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The Story of Frank and Zelda

The early years of running our own veterinary hospital were hard. We were open 6 days a week, on call 7 days a week and raising two young children with no family close by for support. I know this sounds like one of those stories you tell your kids… “you think you have it tough, well let me tell you about tough! Ever try to repair a smashed pelvis and fractured femur with a drooling baby on your back and another one screaming in a playpen next door?” I’m not complaining, it’s just the facts of what our early years as practice owners were like. It was the life we chose and after every exhausting day we looked at each other and agreed it sure beat being back in the dysfunctional partnership we had escaped. In those early years of raising a practice and raising a family, one of the highlights of every night was bedtime. I know, all you parents out there can relate…please, please just go to sleep, we need some adult time. No, the highlight wasn’t getting the kids to sleep, (although this was sweet too), the highlight of our day was story time.  Clean and warm from their bath and cuddled in their jammies we would take turns laying down on their little beds and reading stories. Often, for two exhausted vets, this turned into the kids poking us and saying mommy/daddy finish the story, as we found we were reading ourselves into slumber. I recall Dr. Suess books being especially effective at putting us soundly to sleep.

A little book called “Pizza for Breakfast”, was one of our favorite stories from this period. I do not recall how it ended up in our home, but it was a lovely little fable about Frank and Zelda, two portly restauranteurs who ran a small mom and pop pizza shop. They worked hard making their delicious pizza but were always wishing for more…more customers, a bigger restaurant, etc. After each wish, a “little man” would show up at the restaurant and their wish would be granted. Unfortunately, as each of their desires came true, a set of new problems appeared and they would end up lamenting to each other…”Frank/Zelda we need a plan”.

Our journey as veterinarians was not unlike Frank and Zelda’s (minus the magic little man to grant us our wishes, we just had hard work and staying power on our side) and over the years on those particularly difficult, stressful or truly draining days one of us would catch the other’s eye and say “Frank/Zelda we need a plan”.

How do you sell a veterinary practice? Well, obviously you need a plan and be prepared that plan is going to take some time to execute. Our goal was to get out before we were a couple of washed up, cranky shells of our former selves but still had enough energy to start a new chapter. So how do you sell a multi doctor veterinary practice without going corporate? These days it ain’t easy but we have a few tips for those of you in the same situation.

  1. Stop being a dick and start mentoring your young associates. I am not kidding about this, treat your entire team the way you would want to be treated if you were in their position. Respect, responsibility and appreciation for what they do for you goes along way with all your employees. Model the leadership you want to instil in the new owner and be patient. If you deal with your employees with honesty, transparency and respect you are setting the foundation for a respectful ownership transition.
  2. Evaluate your motives for selling and make sure your are truly ready to let go of the reins and give up control. This was a big one for me. Are you mentally ready to move on and let someone else take control of your practice? Only you can answer this question but you better spend some time reflecting on it and make sure you will be able to step aside when the time comes.
  3.  Have a professional evaluation long before you decide to sell. Address any management problems and get the place in tip top shape prior to looking getting serious about a sale.
  4. Recognize it is going to get stressful and set up expectations at the beginning of your negotiations. We have a great relationship with the associate who purchased our practice but even so, we all agreed that what was most important, to the three of us, was to remain friends. Then, when things get tense, and they will, be ready to step back, put yourself in the buyer’s shoes and be reasonable. Do you really want to sell? You better be willing to give a little and not always get your way.
  5. Let go of your ego, the stories of how much you sacrificed to build your practice and say goodbye to your ridiculous expectations of what your practice is worth. At the end of the day, it is worth what someone will pay for it. Get an evaluation, negotiate for a fair price but again, don’t be a dick. That will just lose you a sale and potentially a valued friendship.
  6. Don’t look back. When the documents are signed and you hand over the keys to the kingdom just pat yourself on the back and be happy. When the dust settles, you will realize you’ve given yourself a gift, the freedom to begin a new chapter and the chance to turn to each other and say “Frank/Zelda we need a plan”.