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.
Did you hear that? In case you missed it, it was the sound of my soapbox being drug out of hiding and the creaking noise it makes when I climb on top. If you aren’t in the mood for a rant, now’s the time to click a new Facebook post preferably one that puts you in a positive mood or makes you laugh. If you are like me you try to hang with like-minded people on social media. You look for positive change makers and when you find them click the like button and fill your feed with “good” stuff. Sadly, even if you actively cultivate the positive you are gonna get your share of BS (no, I do not mean Bachelor of Science, British Standard or Bowel Sounds). People trying to pull you down into their pit of self-righteous judgment and superiority. It is hard to ignore, harder still not to get drawn in and when you do, hard to wash the stain of that BS off your own hands.
What has gotten me all worked up was a recent post on my communities FB page. Let me be clear, this is not the official community page but one of those “Whoville Talks/Rants” pages. I liked this page thinking it would be a way to stay informed about said Whoville events and issues but have found there is a subtle distinction between a “talks” page and a “rants” page. A recent post regarding an altercation between a dog and cyclist in little Whoville got my dander up. It’s not the first time that I have read a post on social media and felt annoyed but it was the first time I was brave enough to respond. Perhaps it is because I too have been slandered online (and offline). Perhaps it is because the post involved a dog issue and I am a veterinarian. Perhaps it was because the post involved a person I know, and felt great empathy towards given the thoughtless and downright mean comments people in Whoville were posting. In reality, it is probably because of where my head is these days.
I have been leading a pretty idyllic life. 2 years ago I stepped off the so-called hamster wheel to try and figure out a new way of living. Not everyone gets it and that’s okay because it has been a personal journey. I am happier than I’ve ever been. I have spent the last 2 years seeing the world, working as a volunteer veterinarian and meeting some pretty amazing people. Contrary to what a lot of people think, I wasn’t on a “holiday” or “retired” but figuring out a different way to live and also figuring out what I wanted from the years remaining to me. One thing is clear, I love being a vet, I love meeting people and sharing our stories and I am truly saddened by the crisis in our profession.
Working as a volunteer veterinarian I have met many amazing members of our profession from veterinarians, veterinary technicians/nurses/assistants to managers and client care specialists/receptionists. Some are happy and love their profession but many are disillusioned and struggling with burnout and compassion fatigue. Bright young people are leaving our profession and sometimes checking out permanently. Recent studies show newly graduated Veterinary Technicians leave the field after 5 years. In 2018 a sobering statistic was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. In the United States, the risk of death by suicide for female veterinarians is 3.5X higher than the population at large and 2X higher for male veterinarians. Studies in other countries including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom present similar data. Just google suicide rates in veterinarians and you will see what I mean.
While this crisis has been front page news in the veterinary profession, I was surprised to find the average person is shocked to hear veterinary professionals, as a group, are struggling. Despite the media attention, the average Joe still sees our job as interesting, well paid and believes we spend most of our day playing with cute furry creatures. Don’t get me wrong, not every vet out there is struggling, in fact, many, like myself love the challenges and rewards of this demanding profession. However, the fact remains, when considering mental health and suicide, our job puts us at a higher risk. Recognizing this and talking about it is the first step in healing ourselves and our teams. Now the challenge is taking the next step, changing the way we work, examining the demands we place on ourselves and learning how to build healthy boundaries in our relationships with our teams and our clients. It is imperative we protect those vital guardians of animal health (your vet and their team) so they are there when we need them to protect and care for our furry family members.
For years I cared for my clients’ beloved pets and my team, sometimes putting my own needs on hold in the process. I now find myself in a pretty cool place with the opportunity to help find solutions to this crisis. To create responsive, resilient leaders, healthier workplaces and better boundaries for the people behind the hospital door. I have a plan (more on that in another blog) and am excited to start this new journey and this, my friends, brings me back to my soapbox.
A quick google search will bring up countless articles discussing the “why” of veterinary suicide risk. This article, while somewhat dated, gives a basic explanation of the reasons we are at higher risk, how to recognize if you or a coworker are at risk and how to respond if faced with a coworker who is struggling. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4266064/
The article addresses the factors that make veterinary medicine a challenging career. We work long hours, for much lower pay than what the public assumes we make and incur huge debt in order to achieve our career goals. We are not just doctors but also small business owners, mentors, HR directors, maintenance managers and some days therapists and psychologists (and not just for our 4 legged patients!) And yes, we are, for the most part, a group of driven perfectionists who take our human failures, our medical errors and our inability to save every patient very personally. What these articles sometimes fail to address is the impact of social media on our collective veterinary psyche and the potential this miracle of the modern age (the internet) has to tip the balance for a struggling individual. Over the years my sensitive soul has grown a thick protective layer, a professional “second skin” making the personal barbs and pokes hurt less when they are directed at me but which kick my maternal instincts into overdrive when directed at a coworker or colleague. A negative review, a comment made in frustration, a need to be right, a desire to feel vindicated or to put someone in their place. We have all been there and in this internet age, who among us is blameless in the social media game?
What good is a soapbox if you only rant and neglect to come up with any solutions? So here are a couple of suggestions to all those who have been wronged by their veterinary team. First, stop, calm down and put yourself in someone else shoes. Then go talk to your vet like a grown-up human being. Seek to understand and reach a resolution together before running to the internet. The internet will still be there tomorrow. Probably. Sadly. I am pretty sure there will be time for some slander later if you still feel the need to destroy another vet.
More importantly, for my colleagues, I want to share my secrets to developing a beautiful, thick and for myself, a decidedly more wrinkled exterior covering. A skin that will protect you in the dangerous days of the internet. A skin which I hope, you look upon with pride when you too find yourself a happy member of a pretty cool profession some 28 years down the road.‘Cause if I made it this long, so can you!
Every morning just get out of bed. Look at yourself in the mirror and tell your reflection you are not an imposter. Go to work. Do your best. All anyone can do is their best.
Fail up. Failure is an opportunity to grow. Never waste an opportunity to grow.
Practice veterinary medicine with honesty, integrity, and transparency. It makes it easier to look in the mirror every morning and your clients will see it and respect you for it.
Let go of your need to be perfect. I know how hard this is but sometimes good enough, is good enough.
Surround yourself with positive people. People who love YOU not Dr. YOU, the veterinarian. Seeking love and accolades from your clients is a slippery slope. Some are gonna love you. Some are gonna hate you and the majority are gonna be indifferent. Seek your love from relationships that matter and the people who are going to be in your life long after you retire.
Build a life outside veterinary medicine. Make time for the things that bring you joy, recharge your batteries and make you feel complete. Do it and don’t tell me you don’t have any interests outside veterinary medicine! For god’s sake get one. Just one hobby. PLEASE!
Learn how to say no. It is called creating healthy boundaries. Respectful boundaries. Do not feel guilty about this. It is not easy but it is what is going to save you and why you will still be here 28 years later when others may not.
GET OFF those stupid Facebook “rant” pages. I am serious. Just do not look at them anymore, ever again, amen! Live in the blissful world of ignorance. It may be hard to believe but there was a world before social media and we all survived just fine.
Thank you for indulging me, friends. I am stepping off my soapbox now. Wondering what’s the clicking sound you just heard? Just me unliking the “Whoville talks” page. Please, go do the same.
Every once in a while the universe steps up, slaps you in the face and reminds you what really matters in this life. It’s time to wake up, pay attention and ask yourself why are you here? This happened to me recently when I found myself in a little town in Mazunte Mexico to participate in a mass sterilization project with a group of veterinarians form the USA (see Viva Mexico, Viva Mazunte Project!). Connecting with people from different backgrounds and experiences over a common goal while making an impact on local pets, local people and also improving the survival of a threatened species was pretty amazing. But then again, I have been on a lot of amazing projects on my journey from successful practice owner to drop out veterinarian so why did this project make such an impression on me?
Graduating from veterinary school in 1991, I arrived on the scene as our profession was undergoing a rapid transition. My early years as a small town mixed animal doctor were marked by a collegiality between veterinarians and veterinary practices that is slowly disappearing from our profession. At conferences when I ran into my colleagues from the practice “down the road”, we would share a beer, a story and a laugh. We would sometimes disagree on the way to manage cases, clients and our practices but there was always an underlying current of support. A feeling like, we are all in this together. Over time I watched our profession become more competitive, my colleagues more guarded and the collegiality that once existed between veterinarians more rare. It feels we have become a profession of perfectionists, afraid to admit our human frailties and reach out to each other for support. And yet it is this humanity and humility that makes for a truly great veterinarian.
Meet Rich Rodger, a veterinarian, humanitarian and driving force behind the Mazunte Project. As I worked on the project and heard Rich’s story I felt compelled to share it. He leads with humility and integrity and is a “boots on the ground” kind of guy that inspires others to follow his example. To me, Rich embodies that spirit of collegiality our profession is at risk of losing and it is for this reason as well as the amazing work this group is doing, that I want to share his story of the Mazunte Project. In an effort to preserve Rich’s voice, I have edited his answers for clarity and brevity only. I hope you enjoy.
The first mass sterilization project in Mazunte was in 2001. Tell me about how the Mazunte Project came to be and the people involved in those early years.
Like you and Rob, I figured when I retired I would give back. That opportunity arose before I retired when Dr Bob Labdon decided in 1993 the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association needed an international group and asked who would be interested. In my usual fashion, I somehow missed the invitation. A friend of mine told me about it and said they were planning a trip to the Dominican Republic for 1994. I signed on and found that from the original group of 30+ volunteers, the only ones making the trip were Bob Labdon, Jay Merriam, Bob’s son, a former tech from Bob’s practice and myself.Bob was paying for three plane tickets plus most of the supplies. It was then I realized Bob’s dedication to making this group a reality. It became known as Project Samana. I was part of the Project for 7 years.
About 5 years into Project Samana I thought we should do something in Mexico, so with my good friend Dr David McCracken, we began making trips down here (Oaxaca coast).
I had called my Reproduction prof who I had played touch football with as a student as we had always gotten along real well. He put me in touch with Dr. Aline Schunemann de Aluja who was Professor Emeritus of Pathology at UNAM and was running an animal welfare program for Equids with funding from UNAM, IDT and an International Donkey Protection Agency. The provinces need more help than Mexico City. Oaxaca and Chiapas are the poorest states in Mexico.
Editors Note: Rich attended veterinary school in Mexico City (curriculum in Spanish) graduating from UNAM with honours in 1978. Following graduation Rich was involved in research as well as general private practice in North Grafton, MA.
We decided we would travel with them to see if we could establish a small animal arm within their group. So for two years David and I traveled with them doing spays wherever they were doing large animal work. There are a lot of stories within those two years that I’ll pass on for now. After two years, I told them I wasn’t seeing a situation where I felt we could make an impact (on the small animal side). The wife of the head veterinarian in our group suggested Mazunte where she had done an internship and knew they needed help controlling the dog population. There were no phone lines to Mazunte at the time, so she and her husband (David Oseguera and Eliza Ruiz) personally traveled to Mazunte and spoke to the director to see if he was open to us coming down there. He was, so we started planning our initial trip for January 2001.
Full circle, Bob Labdon was part of that first trip, as were Hugh Davis and Nancy Fantom, an intern from the MSPCA, Martha Smith, Peter Brewer (a vet whose family owned a zoo), Mark Smith, (an animal capture expert for zoos), Alan Borgal and Rigaud Lee from the Boston Animal Rescue League and myself.
The first day we set up in front of the San Agustinillo town hall to see if we could drum up any interest. We had a hard time because another group had preceded us, who were not as organized and lost a large number of their patients due to being hit by cars following surgery.
The following day we went out to Escobilla beach where we were darting the dogs and bringing them to surgery. There were four of us doing surgery (Bob, Hugh, Martha and I) while Nancy teched (term for a veterinary nurse or technician) with either Alan or Rigaud, and the one who wasn’t teching was out helping Mark and Peter dart dogs. While we were darting the dogs and doing the surgeries (we were already accustomed to operating on dogs with Ehrlichia from working in the Dominican Republic), a woman came up to me and said she could get the people to bring the dogs to us so we didn’t have to dart them. That helped a great deal, but we still had to dart the occasional dog to stay busy!
Editors note: Ehrlichia is a tick borne disease causing anemia and low platelet counts (amount other things) and making surgery more challenging.
We didn’t have a good site in Mazunte, so I think we spent 2 or 3 days in Escobilla on the beach, and 2 or 3 days in San Agustinillo at the Casa Municipal. I think all together we did 50+ dogs and less than 10 cats that first year. The second year we grew in numbers and sites. Pam joined us that year as did our daughter Becky, and David and Eliza, who were instrumental in starting the program.
Editors note: Compare this to 744 animals sterilized in 2019.
Porfirio Hernandez and Marcelino Lopez-Reyes were vets at the turtle center at the time. Neither of them did surgery that year, but helped tech, register patients and assisted in recovery. They both became more involved with the surgeries in subsequent years. Alan Borgal of the Boston Animal Rescue League tells a story about Marcelino that year. He relates that the first year we came, Marcelino ignored him or paid little attention to his/our efforts. The second year when we came back, he greeted Alan with a big abrazo that caught him completely off guard, since the year before he wouldn’t give him the time of day. We asked him about the change of heart, and he said “you came back”.
Why did you decide to start this initiative and/or what was the driving force behind it?
The decision to start the project goes back to vet school. Having gone to vet school here (Mexico), and seeing the needs back then has always been in my consciousness. Figuring out how to help crystallized with the success of Project Samana. The fact that we named it the Mazunte Project is to show they are sister projects. To Bob, Jay and I they always will be. There are a few others who have done both projects, Liz is one of them, Linda and our son and daughter (John and Becky) are others. As the years go by, each project takes on its own personality and connections are lost.
Committing to one project and place, helps me understand the nuances of the problems better and helps our focus and understanding of where we have to concentrate our efforts. Hopefully it will also help us encourage other groups to help on all three fronts: humans, pets and wildlife. Already our daughter wants to help on the human end, Pam does too. Even though those projects aren’t in action, they’re being conceptualized, which is one of the most important steps.
Describe how the campaign has changed and grown from those early days.
The growth has been incremental over the years, we grew from one team to two teams, then three, four and this year we went to five. Having Spanish speakers has been key to growth. For many years we stayed as two teams until we were able to get someone bilingual to allow us to expand.
Our numbers of animals sterilized has increased each year, due to both the growth in participants and increased responses of townspeople bringing their pets to be spayed, the latter being key.
The mission hasn’t really changed, since it has always been to help the turtles, other wildlife, dogs and cats and by extension, the people. We have always maintained a One Health attitude, with the emphasis on spay/neuter. Since 2012 we have tried to help him (Marcelino) out with Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue, forming a 501c3 in November of 2016 to more effectively fund raise for this group.
For you personally, what has been the most rewarding aspect of being involved with this initiative over the years?
I continue because I love being part of the enthusiasm this project engenders. I’m ready to turn over the leadership to others any time someone else wants to step in and would continue to participate even if it meant just being a translator.
I think I continue to bring new aspects to the project just because of my contacts down here. Today I was in a meeting at the Turtle Center discussing the feral dog problem on Morro Ayuta beach, and what role(s) we, could play in addressing it. We’ll see how it plays out. We are already planning for next year and will be adding two new towns down the road.
I think the other things that keep me involved are the constant changes and moving targets that need to be addressed. Once it’s on cruise control (if that ever happens), I’ll be glad to step aside knowing it’s (the Mazunte Project) in good hands. I know it would be in good hands now, if something happened to me, the “morphing” would just take place more slowly.
What are your hopes or aspirations for the Mazunte Project, moving into the next decade?
My hopes and aspirations for the project are multiple. More participation by Oaxaca vets would be nice. Marcelino needs a successor. Where do you find someone as selfless as he has been to run not only Palmarito (Sea Turtle Rescue), but the Iguanario and our efforts as well. I’m looking, but it would have to be a paid position, and I can’t foresee anyone bringing the energy and dedication he has brought to the position he created! Some of the biggest advances could be political if they ever take place. After that, I would like to see the cultural changes take place. If the market (for turtles and turtle eggs) goes, so does the poaching.
If people want to support the Mazunte Project and sea turtle conservation along the Oaxaca coast, how can they help?
There are a number of ways to help. First by participating in the Mazunte Project (becoming involved in the sterilization project each January), patrolling the beach (you would have to be able to identify the species of turtle by its tracks, and also be able to locate the nest), digging nests, acting as a guide for people in their native language, educating the public, (wherever you may be), spreading the word about what we do, and as always, financial support.
Education is a big one. It can simply be telling what we do, or even better, being able to describe the biology and plight of sea turtles and what measures need to be taken to reverse the Leatherback and Green turtles current decline in the Pacific. (Note: the Olive Ridley population is currently considered stable)
The best way to make a donation rests with the donor. Sustaining monthly donations are great! Donations can be made at www.palmaritoseaturtlerescue.org through PayPal (who takes a small percentage). If someone is going to make a one time donation, they can mail a cheque to:
Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue
6 Mahlert Ct.
Auburn, MA 01501
This insures that 100% of the donation will go directly to helping the sea turtles, I pay all the administrative costs.
People can also donate through our facebook page. Bottom line is every donation goes directly to helping the sea turtles.
Finally, is there anything else you would like people to know about the Mazunte Project or Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue?
Yes, if people shop Amazon, they can choose Amazon Smiles and list us (Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue) as their charity. If that occurred nationwide it would be a huge help! Ask everyone you know to sign us up as your charity on Amazon. Right now, I am guessing we have 30 or 40 people signed up which amounts to about $150 to $200 annually. If we had 300 or 400 people, the donations would increase by a factor of 10. Just imagine if we had 3000 or 4000 people.Just $1500 to $2000 would buy a lot of gasoline or pay an employee for 5 months!
Editors note:Marcelino and his employees use ATVs to patrol the beaches, collect turtle eggs and protect hatchlings. This year has been especially difficult with old ATV’s in need of repair or replacement.
Well, as Rich would say “that about sums it up”. I also asked Rich about the key players over the years and he responded by saying that the project has “been very fortunate with the talented and passionate people it has attracted”.He went on to list the many dedicated volunteers who return year after year to lend their skills as well as the many people who work behind the scenes and often go unrecognized but are equally important in the projects’ success. Given my fear of leaving someone out, I have decided not to list the many key players and volunteers who are instrumental in the success of the Mazunte Project. Please know you are appreciated, your efforts have not gone unnoticed and most importantly, you are making a difference.
If one more turtle makes it back to lay eggs on the beach from where it was born, does anyone care? I do and so should you.
The world is full of people who want to make a difference. People who are idealistic, people with drive and focus, people with a specific skill set, people with a mission, people with positive energy.The problem is getting all of these people working as a team where they are willing to set their own ego aside, in order to collaborate and work together, towards a common goal. Those of you working in the veterinary industry can probably relate to how difficult this is in “our world”. Dysfunctional teams seem to be the norm rather than the exception and when you find a team that truly embraces and lives the meaning of the word team, (ie. they’ve got each other’s backs and build each other up daily) hang on for dear life and count your blessings that you found your tribe.
It may behoove the veterinary profession to take a look at the work of companies like Google. Much of the work carried out at Google is done by teams (sound familiar) and researchers at google have taken the time to look at the secret of effective teams. Project Aristotle, a code name based on Aristotle’s quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” was Googles attempt to answer the question “What makes an effective team?”The results shouldn’t surprise us and yet I see our profession still struggling to get this right. Without getting into a long winded discussion about what constitutes a team, (an interdependent work group that plans, solves problems and needs each other to get shit done) and what constitutes effective (depends on the situation but lets just say its getting the shit done that your team leader wants you to get done in an efficient, cost effective and timely fashion) what did Google’s Project Aristotle learn?After accounting for bias and other variables as well as conducting hundreds of double blind interviews, what came through loud and clear was this. What made a difference to team effectiveness was less about who was on the team and more about how the team worked together. Sorry all you smarty pants but just because your team is full of people with a high IQ, it does not necessarily have a positive correlation with positive outcomes and an effective team. In order of importance, here are the things that had the biggest positive impact on team performance:
1. Psycological safety: This refers to the individuals perception of the consequences of taking and interpersonal risk. In lay terms it is feeling safe to speak up without fear of consequences. Do your team mates have your back and create a safe space for dissenting opinions without fear of belittling, punishment or embarrassment.
2.Dependability:Members reliably complete work on time with no shirking of responsibility.
3.Structure and Clarity:Individuals understand their role on the team and have a clearunderstanding of expectations and consequences.
4.Meaning:Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the outcome.
5.Impact: The subjective judgement that your work is making a difference.
Finally I would like to add my own 2 cents, for what it is worth:
6.Appreciation: Team members need to feel their work is not only meaningful and impactful but also appreciated. A heartfelt thank you goes a long way, whether from the team leader, team mates or the public you serve.
A veterinary volunteer projects is a special type of team. In order to meet its goals, it has to find a way satisfy all these positive predictive factors in a very short period of time. Add to this the fact that volunteers come from a widely diverse set of experiences, backgrounds and represent a wide range of personality types. Finally consider that many volunteers are experiencing various levels of culture shock and personal discomfort as they are visiting a new country where weather, food and cultural conditions may be vastly different from “home”. Considering all of this, it amazes me that any veterinary project can strive to meet the criteria of effective teams as laid out by Google’s Project Aristotle, and yet the Mazunte Project succeeds in doing just that.(See “Adventure Awaits: Reflections on Hobbits, Home and Veterinary Volunteerism” for more tips on what to look for in a volunteer project abroad.)
The maze of international animal welfare or veterinary spay and neuter projects is a bit of a rabbit hole. Once you enter the warren, it can take you to places and experiences you never imagined. Rob and I first heard out about the Mazunte Project over a year ago, and started firing off emails in an attempt to learn more about this cool project and see if we could “charm” our way onto it! Our efforts put us in touch with an amazing human being, Rich Rodger, someone I am now proud to call a friend and who I aspire to emulate in the years remaining to me. In a roundabout way, Rich along with a small group of passionate people including Hugh Davis and Nancy Fantom (my team leaders in 2019) organized the first sterilization project back in2000. Over the past 19 years, the Mazunte Project has grown from that small team of 9 people to approximately 50 volunteers in 2019. What started as a small grass roots organization has grown to include not only a team of dedicated volunteers (mostly from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Michigan) but also a team of students and mentors from Michigan State University, and most recently a collaboration with La Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca (UABJO), the veterinary school in Oaxaca. Add a couple of Canadians and you have a true cross border collaboration. Pretty cool indeed!Note: plans are underway to interview Rich and write a blog on the history and his experiences over 19 years of organizing the Mazunte Project.
Over the past 19 years, visiting small villages up and down the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, this group has made not only a positive impact on the health of local dogs but by reducing dog overpopulation in the region, it has also reduced dog predation of sea turtle eggs and hatchlings and is slowly changing attitudes towards animal welfare and conservation in the region. Rich and other volunteers described to me the packs of dogs that used to be found on the beaches and nesting grounds of Golfino (Olive Ridley), Black (Green), Hawksbill and Leatherback sea turtles in the early years of the project.Unsterilized dogs, reproduce quickly and too many dogs leads to hungry animals competing for food.Beaches full of turtle eggs turn into a food source for the local dogs. In addition, for many years the local people of the Oaxaca region harvested turtles and eggs for food and export.In 1991, the Mexican Government banned the harvesting of turtles and eggs and in 1994 the Turtle Center was established with the goal to provide education, protection and research for the local sea turtle population. One of the key players at Palmarito Turtle Conservation is Dr. Marcelino Lopes-Reyes.A veterinarian of boundless energy and passion for animals. He has been a driving force behind turtle conservation in the area, patrolling beaches, relocating nests, finding villages for our teams to visit and encouraging local people to sterilize their dogs. In 2019 the Mazunte Project visited 30 villages and the final count of dogs (and cats) sterilized up and down the Oaxaca coast came in at 744. Considering the conditions we are working in and the fact that teams had 5 days to come together and form a successful MASH unit, it is beyond impressive. Even more impressive to me, was the comaraderie and positive energy of this group. Bitching, complaining and big egos have no place on effective teams. There seemed to be an underlying understanding that we were here to get a job done and have fun doing it!
After spending two weeks working with the Mazunte Project, it is obvious their work is having an impact. On arrival I was impressed with the healthy (even fat in some cases) appearance of the local dog population, not only in the tourist areas of Mazunte, San Augustinillo and Zipolite but also in most of the small rural villages we visited. With time and education, attitudes towards animal welfare are changing. I was very fortunate to visit several of the more remote beaches and see turtle nesting grounds as well as witness a mass hatching of Olive Ridley turtles following a recent Arribada. A small group of volunteers were up early and headed off to see if we could help a few more hatchings make it to the ocean. During the 3.5 hours we were on the beach I saw one pack, of 5 dogs, roving the beach and digging up turtle eggs.Given the number of dogs on this beach 20 years ago, this is a huge reduction.
As a species, humans have been too successful. Our growth and our greed are destroying the planet. It is what successful organisms do but it is at the expense of so many other species. On my more pessimistic days I feel overwhelmed and wonder how “Mother Nature” has any hope against us? But then, I wake up, look around and see how much beauty we still have left and know we cannot let it go without a fight. It is awe inspiring to see these cute little guys, emerge from the sand and struggle against all odds to complete an ancient journey. A journey deeply embedded in their genetic code which we as humans struggle to understand. I was told for every 100 turtle hatchlings, only 2 make it back to nest again on the same beach. The odds are stacked against them and still they don’t give up. We need to follow their example. Go outside, look around and find what inspires you, what leaves you awestruck and fight for it in some small way. After seeing what a small group of passionate people have created and the impact it has had I am inspired that we can still make a difference. Thank you Mazunte Project, don’t give up.
Every dollar you give goes directly to turtle conservation, not administration costs. Dr. Marcelino needs a new ATVs to patrol the beaches at night and protect nests as the old one they are using is finally beyond repair. Every dollar you give, will be put to good use. You don’t have to be a veterinarian or veterinary technician to help. Every dollar you give helps as much, or more than the time we have given to this project. Every dollar is appreciated.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 recently listened to an interesting TED talk, “The happy secret to better work” by Shawn Anchor and it got me thinking about the challenges facing our profession. Challenges that include burnout, compassion fatigue and a high rate of suicide. Shawn has hit on some key ideas worth examining. Ideas that may provide some insight into how to “reprogram” our profession and find the joy again in what we do as veterinarians.
The path to success in veterinary medicine is clearly laid out; work hard and study relentlessly. Strive for top grades, get experience in the profession and don’t give up even if it takes several years to get that acceptance letter. Veterinarians are not lacking in determination, focus and work ethic and it is that stubborn determination combined with hard work and a pinch of luck, that got most of us into veterinary school. We learned the importance of setting goals and pushing ourselves to the limit, in order to reach those goals. Once achieved, we set new, loftier goals and drive ourselves towards these new benchmarks. Always, in the back of our minds is a voice telling us to keep working, just a little more, just a little longer because when you reach that goal you will be happy.Life will be good.
I was one of those people who decided to become a veterinarian at a young age. Growing up on a family farm, my exposure to the profession was through our family’s veterinary practice; a group of mixed animal practitioners, who worked on all species but whose primary focus was large animals. I watched them treat bloat, perform cesareans on cows and save my horse from grass founder.It fascinated me and I immediately decided that THIS is what I was going to not just DO, but BE.I was determined to become a vet and as a teenager, I volunteered, worked hard and hung around our family’s practice long enough that they eventually gave in and offered me a summer job.As I worked towards my goal, I was not dissuaded by people, including a high school guidance counselor and my own dad, who told me either I was not smart enough or resilient enough to become a vet. I stubbornly refused to give up and in the end, this tenacity and work ethic resulted in acceptance to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Following graduation, it was a given that I would return to my roots, mixed animal practice in rural Alberta. The overriding goal was to settle into a rural community, buy into a practice and build a life as a small town veterinarian. At the time it was not only all I knew, but it was also what was expected of me. This was the picture of my future I had visualized for most of my childhood and university years.
Those early years had their challenges but they also set the stage for a newly married couple to learn how to support each other and work together as veterinarians. In a busy rural practice, you spend the months of January to March either pulling something out of a cow or pushing something back in!It was a steep learning curve and as a recent graduate, I vividly recall being called out for one of the most difficult calvings of my career.I arrived at the farm to discover a small heifer presenting with the calves entire head protruding from the birth canal. Both front legs were back against the calves body and, while the calf was still alive, its head was terribly swollen. I needed to push the head back through pelvis in order to bring the front legs forward and pull the calf through the birth canal. After trying every trick I could think of, that swollen head would not budge. In desperation, I decided to perform a cesarean. Maybe, I reasoned, once I had the uterus open, I could pull on the calves hindlegs while the farmer pushed on the head and we could free it from the birth canal. It seemed like a good plan but after pulling and pushing, grunting and swearing I found myself no further ahead. Now I had a heifer that was down, with an open uterus and a live calf still stuck in the pelvis. My boss was unreachable, Rob was out on another farm call and I was out of ideas and starting to panic. Just as I started to melt down, I felt an arm go around my back and a calm voice said: “Don’t worry doc, we’re in this together and we will get that fella out”. I will never forget the acceptance and kindness shown to a very green veterinarian in that first year in practice.
We survived, and in that year and gained more experience than we ever imagined possible. Despite a welcoming community, we realized we needed to find a practice with more support and mentorship.We left that first job and joined a multi-doctor practice with hopes of settling into a new community and finding that elusive happiness. Fast forward four years.We are now partners in that multi-doctor practice and the life plan, as I envisioned it all those years ago, appears to be right on track. Get into vet school, check. Become a mixed animal practitioner in Alberta, check. Become a practice owner, check.Start a family…wait a minute, you want to have kids? As a female large animal vet? What are your plans for the calving season?Will you still be able to cover call?How dare you become pregnant and start a family without discussing this with your partners? No congratulations were forthcoming and our excitement about starting a family was temporarily put on hold as we dealt with the many issues that had been simmering under the surface of this so-called partnership. Looking back, my pregnancy was simply the final straw in a partnership that was doomed from the beginning. There was never any intention to mentor and support the new owners with the goal of transitioning the practice to a younger generation. One dominant, narcissist partner called the shots and during a downturn in business, rather than look for solutions it was easier to find a scapegoat and place blame.
Making the decision to dissolve the partnership and leave Alberta was one of the hardest decisions of my career. Not only did we stand to lose a large amount of money, we also stood to lose our identity as veterinarians. The meticulous picture of my life plan, painted in my mind over the last 14 years, was being redrawn. Who was I if not a rural, mixed animal veterinarian? I felt like a failure. I was mentally defeated and for the first time since deciding to become a vet and I seriously questioned whether I had made the right career choice. I had worked hard, followed the path that was supposed to lead to success and therefore happiness. So why was I so unhappy?Was I a failure if I walked away from this partnership?
Our culture has programmed us to follow a specific formula for success and happiness which goes something like this:If I work hard enough, I will be successful. If I am successful, I will be happy. This constant push to reach new goals and link the achievement of these goats to your happiness is a dangerous path. While strong work ethic, stubborn determination, and focus (or what is commonly called grit) are needed for success in veterinary medicine, I sometimes wonder if our profession has taken it too far.If happiness is only achieved by becoming successful perhaps it is time to rewrite our definition of success. Through my failed partnership, I learned that grit will take you far but it is equally important to know when to walk away. All the grit and determination in the world cannot change a bad situation into a good one. Quitting doesn’t always equal failure, instead, it can be a new beginning, a chance to change your narrative and create your own definition of success. When struggling with the decision to leave our partnership, I recall a colleague saying to me “You can’t row a boat that isn’t moving”.When you are stuck, you may need to get out of the boat and push it into the current. It takes courage, but trust me, the momentum will take you where you need to go.
Surfing the web today I came across an online review directed at a veterinary hospital and a specific veterinarian in a small community. Reading it made me angry but then I realized that I don’t have to remain silent. This review was not about me or about my practice but it quite easily could have been.In fact, it has been about me in the past and like many veterinarians, I too have been victim to negative reviews, online slander and even bullying in my small community.For twenty-seven years, as a vet, I chose to “take the high road” and remained silent. Refusing to respond to the negative and slanderous online trolls, I tried to grow a thick skin and focus on staying positive. Only those closest to me know how much it hurt and how I struggled to not let those comments eat away at my confidence.
In the early years of my career, I struggled with being a professional in a small, close-knit community. As a vet, everyone had an opinion. They loved you or hated you. You were either a hero or a money-grubbing capitalist. Sometimesthe same client that praised you last week was the one calling you a heartless villain this week. While it has gotten easier to accept the nasty comments and behind your back whispers that occur in a small community, I have to admit, sometimes it still feels personal. How can it not? For many of us, our career as veterinarians is a calling, not just a job.
I still recall the experience as a new practice owner, of a truly hateful and slanderous campaign aimed at harming our small business and turning our new community against us. I was invited by a friend to join an evening painting group. I love to draw and paint, but starting a family and buying a small business had left me little free time to pursue my hobbies. I decided it was time to do something for myself and agreed to join my friend. I introduced myself to the group as just “Elaine” and being new to the community, most of the members did not know I was “Dr. Elaine”, a veterinarian.As people worked on their art and chatted with each other, I remained silent as the talk turned to pets and then a discussion of local veterinarians. Opinions about local veterinarians were bantered about and then my stomach knotted as things suddenly took a nasty turn. I listened in shock, as people discussed the smear campaign of posters that were being placed around the community “exposing” the terrible new veterinarians that had recently started a practice. This was the first I had heard about this slanderous campaign and I was afraid and hurt. With a tremor in my voice, I stood up and re-introduced myself as “Dr. Elaine Klemmensen”. I heard a collective gasp go through the room and sat back down to a room of stunned silence. I continued to paint while trying to figure out how I could get the hell out of there! Thankfully I was saved by my pager buzzing. One of the few times in my career I was happy to get called in for an after-hours emergency! Trolls did exist, back in the days before social media. Spreading their message was a little more difficult and their reach more limited but the effect on an individuals psyche equally devastating. The happy ending to that story was that it helped to build my resiliency and it taught me a valuable lesson about focusing on inner happiness and my own definition of success rather than external validation and popularity.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and what I am talking about here is not respectful dialogue and open communication aimed at resolving a conflict or misunderstanding. I am talking about mean and spiteful online slander aimed at harming an individual and/or their business. There is a difference and for years I ignored those trolls and refused to respond for two reasons: first, it seemed unprofessional and petty to respond. Second, I did not want to get drawn into the negative drama and chose instead, to protect myself and stay positive. To focus my energies on the people and things that I cared about in life and let the haters hate. It is far too easy in veterinary medicine to dwell on the negative. The negative outcomes, the negative clients, and the negative reviews. To let that one mean, unhappy client or coworker, ruin your day while forgetting about the 20 amazing people that put a smile on your face.
What I realized today, while reading this nasty online review, is that I can finally speak up. I no longer own a veterinary practice, I no longer have anything to lose and maybe it is time for all of us in this profession to end the silence, to stop turning the other cheek and to tell the bullies what we really think.
So to all of you out there who have posted unfair, biased and downright mean reviews about your vet. Rants aimed to hurt or damage their reputation with no desire to understand or resolve your issue. Wake up and take responsibility for your choices. You adopted that pet, you took on the financial responsibility for that animal and it isn’t your vet’s responsibility to subsidize the cost of medical care for you. It isn’t your veterinarian or their team’s fault when it is injured or ill.As hard as we try, as skilled as we may be, we cannot save every patient, we cannot foresee every complication and while we are doing our best, at the end of the day we are only human. Stop making your vet feel guilty if they want to earn a fair salary for the 60+ hours a week they work and for heaven’s sake stop telling them they’re “only in it for the money”. Frankly, this phrase is getting pretty old for all of us. Show a little creativity and come up with something new already. Recognize if you choose a lower priced veterinarian who does not offer 24 hour emergency care, you made this choice. When your pet is ill on Christmas Day and your regular vet won’t answer their phone, is it fair to expect the other veterinarian to miss Christmas morning with their kids? Oh, and one more thing, if you are going to slander us or our team online at least have the balls to sign your real name.To Professor Dante, DW,Mountain Mitch and all the others hiding behind your slick pseudonyms, you’re not fooling anyone. We know who you are and all you have succeeded in doing is losing our respect. If you have a problem with our service or care, just talk to us. Face to face. Like a grownup.
Sorry if that sounds unprofessional folks but maybe it is time to stand up for ourselves and tell it like it is.When my son was in grade 5, he was the target of some schoolyard bullying. We talked about it and encouraged him to not react, to pretend it didn’t bother him, essentially to turn the other cheek. True to his nature, he listened, digested this information and then decided to handle it his way. This involved tossing the said bully across the room and ending up in the principles office.We were called into the school to discuss our son’s “anger management issues” and true to our non-confrontational nature, we listened and did not say what was on our minds, something I have always regretted.Where are the other kids’ parents? Is it okay to constantly taunt someone with mental abuse until they snap? Thankfully his teacher gave our son the support we did not when several weeks later, he asked him how things were going. Our lad replied that things were much better for him after he threw the kid across the room.The teacher just looked at him meaningfully and said: “Sometimes you just gotta do, what you gotta do”.
Maybe it is time to stand up and do what we gotta do. What do you think?