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

Got Grit?: Redefining success in veterinary medicine.

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.

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Leaving for university. Who packed that truck? I am amazed my boxes didn’t fly out the back. 

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.

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My families prairie farm

 

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.

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Graduation from Western College of Veterinary Medicine

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.

Haters gonna Hate: Are we really supposed to just sit back and take it?

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. Sometimes  the 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?

L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

As I write tonight there is a welcome chill in the air after the hot days of July. I flip the calendar page to August and realize it is time to start thinking about the year ahead and making plans.  I have been talking about going back to school and using my experience as a veterinarian along with my business experience and people skills to help other veterinarians build amazing careers and lead balanced lives outside veterinary medicine. Something that is finally on the collective minds of our profession and is sorely needed. I truly love being a vet and the thought of building a new career to help other vets find the joy and satisfaction I have experienced in my profession excites me BUT… There is always a “but” isn’t there? Getting my executive coaching certification, while not impossible to do while vagabonding around the world, will be more difficult. Staying put in Canada and working towards this goal would definitely make things easier.

Over our favorite craft beer (at the Rossland Beer Company), we talked it out and tried to come up with a “plan” for the year ahead.  As I looked into the red/gold liquid of my Helter Smelter Amber Ale, the words from a song by Noah and the Whale started playing in my head.

“On my last night on Earth, I won’t look to the sky

Just breathe in the air and blink in the light

On my last night on Earth, I’ll pay a high price

to have no regrets and be done with my life.”

“L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.

You’ve got more than money and sense, my friend

You’ve got heart and you’re going your own way”

I thought back to April 2016, Rob and I were bouncing across a flat plain in Botswana on our first trip to Africa. We were on a budget camping safari and loving every minute of it. With a hot wind in our faces, we had the tunes blaring as we shared a set of earbuds and watched the surreal scenery unfold around us.

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We still owned our veterinary practice and the management pressure and workload was weighing heavily. I needed to make a change, hire a practice manager or commit more time to management and less to being a vet. I was struggling with how to move forward and honestly struggling to figure out what I wanted from life. L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N was playing and as I listened to the lyrics I realized it was time for us to stop putting off the things we want to do. What an amazing journey to build a small practice from nothing into a business and vision we could be proud of. To be part of a great community and to be able to provide a livelihood for several families in that community. But what did Elaine really want, on her last night on earth? That’s the kicker? What are my regrets and what can I do to reduce any regrets going forward?

My biggest priority has always been my family. If I am honest, it wasn’t always easy being a wife, mother and a veterinarian. The pressures of running a business, managing staff and client demands, being on call and also being present for my husband and children left me feeling like I was running on empty some days. Which seems crazy because I also had a supportive business and life partner, who I know felt the same way most days! Being in it together and having each other’s back, helped us survive those crazy times. Perhaps it is one of life’s great ironies that once you finally have more time and are able to enjoy each moment, your children suddenly don’t need you as intensely. They’ve grown and moved on to their own lives, which is as it should be.

What I do know moving forward is that my family is still my biggest priority and I want to be their biggest fan. I want to be there for the big moments. I want to have the time and make the effort to be a part of their lives while giving them the space they need to become their own people as they figure out this next phase. I also know I want to keep pushing my fear aside, trying new things, meeting new people and not let my fear of looking or sounding foolish hold me back. So if I don’t pursue a coaching career will I have regrets? Probably. When I am at end of days, looking back on my life will I regret not taking another year to bugger off, travel, volunteer and see more of this big beautiful world? Definitely. Decision made. Now I just need to stick with it and quit the second guessing.

Pretty great life, to be sure. If you are feeling envious, don’t be, instead be inspired. Ask yourself what you want, what’s holding you back and make a plan. Face your fears and do what you need to do, in order to find the joy you deserve. No regrets.

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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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Try the Goat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Stay tuned and until then remember to try the goat!

Where the heck is Carriacou?

Since March 26, Rob and I have been hanging out on a chill little island in the Caribbean. In exchange for a free bed, we are offering up our veterinary skills to the Carriacou Animal Hospital, the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou. Let me tell you this gig is one sweet deal! While Rob and I live at the hospital and are available for walk in appointments and emergencies, the relaxed pace, instant social life and beautiful turquoise sea just a few steps away is ample reward for the work we provide.

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Kathy (director of Carriacou Animal Hospital) and Nadine (Head Veterinarian)

So where the heck is Carriacou? Located in the South eastern Caribbean Sea and one of the Grenadine islands, Carriacou is a two hour ferry ride north east of Grenada. 

The population of the island is listed as 8000 but locals suggest this may be inflated by seasonal visitors and a more realistic number may be 6000. In either case, at just 13 square miles, it’s a pretty small place and to our delight, has a very authentic Caribbean vibe. It is a place that seams stuck in time, with friendly locals, small shops and restaurants with glimpses of  beautiful white sand beaches and a turquoise Caribbean Sea from every vantage point.

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Rough seas on the ferry from Grenada to Carriacou
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The ferry landing and our first glimpse of Hillsborough Carriacou

So what does a typical day at Carriacou Animal Hospital look like?  Most days we awaken early to the frenzied sound of the hospital’s yard dogs barking at the passing garbage truck. We lounge under our mosquito net and listen to the ocean waves as we plan our morning.  Coffee is the first priority, then while one of us attends to the animals in our care, the other begins emptying garbages, sweeping and cleaning the cabin before our clients and patients arrive. We clean kennels, wash wounds, give medications and make sure all our charges have had some exercise and some love before we head to the beach to relax for a bit with toes buried in the soft sand and our morning coffee in hand.

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The hospital officially opens at 8:30 am, but clients trickle in at any time of day, often as they are passing by and remember they need advice or medication. In Carriacou, appointments and surgeries are rarely planned very far in advance. After all, this is the Caribbean, relax man and go with the flow! The amazing and upbeat Lorraine, arrives at 8:30 and starts to organize our day. She manages to juggle phone calls, client requests, finding lost files and confused volunteers with a laugh and smile. Clients are called a day ahead to schedule elective surgeries but our days rarely go as planned. Carriacou is a small place and it is often while out in the community that the founder of Carriacou Animal Hospital, Kathy or Nadine, the head veterinarian, will be met by local people asking “Are you the vets? I have a dog that needs to be cut.” The local term for sterilization, either a spay or neuter surgery, is to have your dog “cut”.  They will take a name, phone number and try to find out where the dog lives and then set up a time for surgery, usually as soon as possible.

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Our patients arrive in all sorts of “carriers”.  This little guy had a small eyelid injury from a dog bite. He healed up and did great.

 

Some days our surgeries arrive at the hospital between 8:30 and 9:00 am and we get an early start, but often the clinic team needs to travel and pick up our patients at home. Many locals rely on public transportation and cannot take animals on the bus. After following the winding roads up hillsides and into small communities, we now have to catching our patients. While most dogs are friendly, they have not all been socialized to strangers and this can take a good part of our morning. We sedate them onsite and arrive back at the clinic ready to start surgery. 

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Rob preforms a cat spay

During most of our time at Carriacou Animal Hospital we did not have a veterinary technician/nurse, but instead had 3 veterinarians, myself, Rob and Dr. Nadine. One of us would assist the “surgeon” for the day while the other would see appointments that dropped in, wash surgical instruments and attend to laundry.  As patients recover through the afternoon we write up charts and finish with instrument sterilization and cleaning. Sometimes there are emergency calls about animals which had been “bumped”, the local term for being hit by a vehicle and sadly, a common occurrence on the island. Other days we see walk in appointments or attend to scheduled house calls to check on patients or treat animals whose owners have no transportation.

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Children showing us their puppy while checking on another dog with heartworm that lives with this family.

 

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Puppies – Our favorite house call patients!

By mid to late afternoon our patients are awake and ready to be delivered home, to their thankful owners. Now its time to relax and cool off in the turquoise sea, that is literally steps away, while we watch the most spectacular sunsets.

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Similar to veterinary hospitals around the world, everyday brings something new through the doors of Carriacou Animal Hospital. For me, this variety, is one of the things I love most about my chosen profession; life as a vet is never dull and there is always something new to learn! Our patients are usually covered in fleas and ticks and heartworm infection is extremely common here. 

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This client brought his dog in for a check up and tick treatment. Check out the ticks in his ears in the photo below.
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Wow, he will feel so much better after his treatment!

Educating clients about preventative treatments and their importance is a routine part of every client visit. Tick Fever is extremely common on Carriacou and can present with a variety of symptoms. Interestingly enough, we have found the amount of bleeding during surgery seems to be less severe than with our erhlicia infested patients in Botswana. Nutritional advice is also much needed on the island. Locals commonly feed puppies bread and milk. Dog food, while available, is expensive and not commonly used.  Part of our job is educating people about the importance of nutrition and protein in a puppies diet.  Sometimes the smallest changes and advice can have a huge impact on the health of the local dog population.

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These three puppies were all from the same litter but the small one lives with a different family member and has only been fed bread and milk. Note the difference in size and health.

Injuries, accidental and deliberate are also common in the local dog population. Burns, gunshot wounds and fractures (sometimes secondary to malnutrition and often the result of trauma) are just a few of the cases we have treated.

The local dog population is a mix of breeds with the average size adult dog weighing between 10 to 20 kg. Mixed breed Pit Bulls are popular with the islands young men and occasionally we see pups that look like they have some type of herding breed in there background.

Being the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou, we also get calls to treat the occasional sheep or goat. One sheep arrived for emergency wound care after being attacked by the neighbours pit bull. Another little orphaned lamb came in to treat an abscessed hoof. In general, however, livestock concerns are referred to the local agriculture veterinary department.

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Rob reliving his days as a mixed animal vet!

While the hospital was started to provide veterinary care to the local population and their pets, as a way to give back and provide a desperately needed service, Carriacou Animal Hospital also provides care to the local expat population.  Export permits are commonly needed as well as routine preventative care for pets that are lucky enough to spend part of the year in the Caribbean with their owners.

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Sancho arrives at the hospital via the sea
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Sancho gets a checkup from Rob

Founded in 2012, Carriacou Animal Hospital is an independent non-profit veterinary hospital. The hospital does not receive public funding and is staffed entirely by volunteer veterinarians and veterinary technicians/nurses. Volunteers often fundraise at home, prior to their trip to Carriacou, bringing with them much needed medications and supplies. Minimal fees are charged in order to cover the cost of delivering this much needed service. However, the hospital’s main goal is to provide care for the animals in most need, often those whose owners cannot afford treatment.  Clients are NEVER turned away due to lack of financial resources and patients are treated, without question or judgement, with the goal of alleviating distress and suffering and providing the necessary care for each individual patient. Check out their website at www.carriacouanimalclinic.com to learn more or donate to this wonderful project. You can also follow Carriacou Animal Hospital on Facebook: www.facebook.com/CarriacouAnimalHospital.

While it is easy to tell you about our work days, the patients we see and the fun activities we have experienced in Carriacou, it is harder to put into words the cultural experience of volunteering as a veterinarian on this small island. Carriacou is not what I  pictured when envisioning the Caribbean. It has a small town feel, it is not yet a “hot” tourist destination and on most beaches you will them completely to yourself. There are no all inclusive resorts and the restaurants, for the most part, are small and locally owned.

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The “road” we cycled along to a small beach with great snorkeling.  

 

While the local people are friendly and welcoming, there is no doubt that you are an outsider. I find it interesting that there are several unique “communities” that coexist in Carriacou and between these “communities” there is a wide range of values and of course wealth. After spending the day doing house visits to families living in abject poverty we would often return to the hospital and see super yachts anchored just off shore. I am talking yachts that are towing at least one speed boat as well as 3 jet skis and rent for $800 000 USD per week! The yachting community and other expats who spend part of their year living in the Caribbean, while not all are of the uber-wealthy super yacht set, are definitely part of the “haves” of the world (as are we). There are also the local Carriacou families who were born here but moved away as children or young adults, often to Britain, to be called back to the simple way of life and family values that tied them to the islands. Finally there are the locals who have grown up on the island and never left. They may be fisherman, tradesmen, running a small business and raising their families here on the island, proud of their home and heritage.  For the most part, all co-exist peacefully on this beautiful island, but the disparity in wealth is ever present and more obvious given the small size of Carriacou.

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The Coral Ocean Super Yacht which was anchored just off shore

 

 

Since hitting the road in November, I have tried to be an observer and record what I see, letting the experience of being in the moment and using the skills I have acquired, guide me. I am sure as time passes and I process these experiences I will find a more articulate way to express what I have learned. Right now, I feel extreme gratitude for all the blessings I have in my life, my health, my family and most of all, the one over which I really had no control; my good fortune in the genetic lottery of life.  How very luck to be born into a middle class family in Canada with the intelligence, drive and opportunity at my disposal. Seeing families living in poverty unlike what many of us can imagine, drives this gratitude home. How to help those less fortunate, whether at home or abroad, living in the cycle of poverty and despair, is so complicated it leaves me feeling quite helpless. Over the last 6 months, the problem of the worlds overconsumption as become more real to me. The amount of garbage and waste we find in the country side and the ocean, coupled with over packaging and lack of recycling is disheartening to say the least. Living out of a backpack, makes it easier to reduce consumption and consumerism but the real test will be finding ways to continue this positive change upon our return home. This journey has made me more mindful of my own consumption as well as questioning my western values and lifestyle.

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Garbage littering a green space in Havana Cuba

 

In 10 days we will leave Carriacou and start a new journey in a new part of the world. We will take with us two new friendships and the knowledge that we will be back again to work with this amazing charily in November.Stay tuned for more adventures and more ramblings from a mind unleashed in the weeks to come. And yes, I will be feeling very guilty about my carbon footprint when I get on that plane.  

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Local dogs playing in the ocean