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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.