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

I am published! Cool Beans!

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!

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Will Spay for Food

The life you have led, doesn’t need to be the only life you have

                                                -Anna Quindlen

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.

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Gratitude: Rossland you Rock!

Yesterday I woke up, my first day of “retirement”, a word I hate as I don’t feel like I am ready for that word, not yet anyway.  So lets start again. Yesterday I woke up, the first day of a new beginning. I enjoyed my coffee, dealt with emails and headed out for a chilly mountain bike ride. As I peddled up hill, I felt a little off balance, this was my first day of freedom and it just felt like any other day. The last year has been a rollercoaster of emotions, so perhaps it is understandable when you hand in your key and walk out the door to a different life, it feels a little anti-climactic.

As I rode, I let my thoughts drift over the last 20 years, thinking about the life we built in this little mountain town. Since arriving in Rossland, in 1997, the community has mostly known us as “the vets”, rather than Rob and Elaine.  For many people, living in a small community takes some getting used to, especially if you are a professional and in the public eye.  You quickly realize that everyone seems to know everyone else’s business, everyone is related, people talk behind your back and not everyone wants what you have to offer.  You grow thicker skin and remind yourself to focus on the positive.  After all, “haters gonna hate”. As I rode along in the beautiful fall weather I was reminded again about all those positives of small town life and realized that what I am feeling as I move on to this new beginning is gratitude.

Cultivating gratitude doesn’t cost any money but has huge benefits.  So here is my list of all the great things about living in Rossland, the most amazing small town in Canada. The place that we will picture when we hear the word “home”, as we head out on this new beginning.IMG_2335.jpg

  1. Everyone knows your business:  Yes, it is often annoying as hell to live life with no anonymity but it also means you have a whole community that has your back and is helping raise your children (I usually knew the trouble my kids were in before they arrived home from school, thanks to the local gossips!).
  2. The amazing outdoors:  How cool is it to live on the side of a mountain where I can ride my bike in any direction and within 10 minutes be in the woods!  Enough said.IMG_2374.JPG
  3. Kids can be kids:  My kids could walk to school alone every day, which is pretty cool. Even cooler though is that the biggest concern was wildlife.  End of day announcements at our school were often a wildlife update ” On your way home, today be alert, there is a mother bear and cubs hanging out on the corner of Cooke Ave. and Nevada Street kids”.  Where else can your kids grow up and not need to carry a key, because most of us don’t lock our doors. So awesome!
  4. Buying groceries is a social event:  You pop out to pick up a jug of milk and return home 2 hours later because you saw everyone you know at the local grocery store and got to catch up with all your friends!
  5. A community that cares:  Losing a school due to declining enrolment and lack of government funding? No problem, Rosslanders fought hard to save their high school and when they lost the battle, they picked themselves up and started an independent high school. Need a skate park? Rossland to the rescue and a group of committed community members made it happen (slowly to be sure, but the cement was poured this fall along with a new Youth Center).  Love riding or hiking our amazing network of trails? Thank Friends of the Rossland Range.  Looking for something to do this weekend? Check out the amazing programming available from the Rossland Arts Council.  Rosslanders not only know the meaning of community, they live it.  In fact, many people in this community inspire me to be a better person and to get involved.

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To our home town as well as the amazing communities of Trail, Fruitvale,  and the surrounding areas, thank you.  It has been an honour and privilege to be part of this community as your veterinarians.  Now, as we start this new chapter, we look forward to getting to know you as Rob and Elaine.  See you on the trails!