Try the Goat

As I watch the sun set over the Caribbean it seems remarkable that 6 weeks have passed since our arrival on the beautiful island of Carriacou. In just 5 days, we we start on a long journey to Eastern Europe with the end goal being some family time and to visit our daughter who is a student at the United World College in Mostar, Bosnia. For the next month we will not be doing any veterinary volunteer projects and just enjoying some travel time and family time. While we will enjoy just being vagabonds and on our own schedule for the next 8 weeks, volunteering as veterinarians has been an amazing experience. It has given purpose to our travels and improved our surgical skills, adaptability and resourcefulness as veterinarians. These are benefits I had expected when I started down this road of international volunteerism, but there is one benefit that I had not fully anticipated. Volunteering abroad has provided us with an instant community of interesting, passionate and dedicated people from around the world, with whom we have formed lasting and meaningful friendships. To all you exceptional humans, whose we’ve met over the past 16 months, thank you. Getting to know you, sharing our stories, sharing a meal and occasionally sharing too many rum punches has made the last year a truly amazing journey. It has gotten me thinking about what makes for an exceptional veterinary volunteer experience and also what makes an exceptional volunteer.

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In the last year and a half we have worked with a large number of volunteers. People from around the world, with different backgrounds, nationalities, ages and experience levels.  Compassion and a love of animals is the common ground that unites us and brings this diverse group of people together on a project. While I can only truly speak to my own experience, I feel some volunteers return home transformed and empowered while for others the experience is less fulfilling. Like so many things in life, the benefits you receive are directly related to the effort you are willing to put in. So once you have decided to dip your toes in the world of veterinary volunteerism (or really any type of volunteer work), how can you ensure you will have the best experience possible?

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When you pack your bags, don’t forget to pack a great attitude. If you walk around with a storm cloud over your head at your practice back home, leave the attitude there please.  This is a working holiday, after all, so leave your worries at home and consider it an opportunity to make a fresh start.

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Be ready to work hard and pitch in wherever you are needed. This means forget about your job description at home and be willing to clean kennels, wash instruments, answer phones and sweep floors, even if you are a vet!  Really?  Yes, really.

Shut your mouth and open your mind. Forget about how you do things “back home”, listen to the project directors, follow the protocols and accept that things are done differently for good reason. Costs and availability of medications varies greatly from country to country and project to project. Stop and consider the Project leaders and directors. These people have often put in countless hours of their own time not to mention countless dollars from their own pockets, in order to get the veterinary project launched. They have a very personal stake in the project. When you show up and immediately start complaining about the type of suture available, the anesthetic protocols the expired drugs on their hospital shelves you have just successfully alienated the very people that gave you this opportunity. Good work!

If you have a big ego, please stay home. Seriously, there are enough big egos and competitive attitudes in our veterinary practices at home, let’s not bring them along on volunteer trips. Egos are the enemy of teamwork. A big egos does not endear you to your coworkers, and most importantly it gets in the way of reaching the project goals.

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Talk with the local people not at them. Engage and interact with the community you are working in and try to leave your preconceived ideas of a country or culture at home. This can be harder to do than you may think. We are all programmed to believe our way of thinking is correct and to want to change a local populations way of thinking to more closely match your own.

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Remember your manners. Be respectful of local people, the charity organizers and the other volunteers. Say good morning, smile and don’t forget to say thank you. Nothing will give you a bad reputation, as a volunteer, faster than rudeness and an ungrateful attitude. Have fun but remember you are working in a small community of people, both the volunteer community and the local community.  Your behaviour can impact not only you but can also affect the reputation of the project. Remember you are an ambassador for more than just yourself.

Finally, remember to bring a sense of adventure, have fun and be willing to trying something new. Never eaten goat? Now is your chance. Always wanted to snorkel with sharks? Say yes to that unexpected invitation. Things rarely go as planned on volunteer trips, electricity goes out, patients wake up in the middle of surgery and you may find yourself forced to improvise and try things you would never consider in your practice at home.  Just go with it, stay cool and don’t sweat the small stuff. Odds are you will be amazed that, in the end, it all turns out okay. 

 

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Since selling our veterinary practice in November, we have discovered a new world of opportunities and experiences as veterinarians. A huge thank you to everyone who has made these past 8 months so remarkable: Maun Animal Welfare Society, the Spanky Project, Carriacou Animal Hospital and all the people we have met along the way. You accepted us without hesitation, made us feel welcome and gave us the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Thanks to you, we now have friends around the world and networks to new adventures in the years to come.  Following our travels in the Balkans we will be returning to Canada for 4 months to work as locum veterinarians. Our journey as volunteer veterinarians, however, has just began as we have several new projects, as well as a return to some of our favorites, lined up for the end of 2018 and 2019.

Stay tuned and until then remember to try the goat!

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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?

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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.

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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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