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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 ofbeautiful white sand beaches and a turquoise Caribbean Sea from every vantage point.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ridge’s burn when we arrived
Almost healed and ready to go home soon!
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.
Elaine with our tiny patient
Suspected greenstick fracture mid-tibia
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.
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.
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 Ipictured 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.
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.
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.
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.
Okay, let me start with a disclaimer. No spanking occurred during this volunteer project. Very serious stuff only folks, sorry to disappoint! Founded by the kind and humble Terry Shewchuck and named after his dog, Spanky, the project was started about 15 years ago and has recently become a non-profit charity, growing to involve a chapter in the USA coordinated by the delightful Audrey (sorry Audrey, I never did learn your last name, my bad!). Terry’s love of Cuba, its people and a desire to improve the lives of the furry four legged Cubans was the catalyst forthe Spanky Project. While planning our cycling trip, I stumbled on their Canadian and American Facebook pages while looking for volunteer veterinary projects in Cuba. A few emails later and we were part of the February 2018 campaign.
We arrived in Havana a few days early in order to change our visas from “tourist” to “working” and discovered Terry had taken care of everything for us. Our new visas allowed us to stay in Cuba until May 1, 2018 which was a huge bonus as a tourist visa is only valid for 30 days and our planned departure in late March meant we would have overstayed our welcome.
Travelling through Cuba 5 years ago, I fell in love with Havana. Sadly, the love affair is over. Perhaps revisiting a place you loved isn’t a good idea. You go with high expectations but it is never the same the second time around.It leaves you wondering, what changed? Did the city really change that much? Or perhaps it is you who changed? Havana still has the crumbling beauty I found so intriguing, but on this visit the touts seemed more ferocious, people less friendly and old Havana more touristy. However, we found a warm and welcoming home at the lovely Casa Mirador la Colina. We were blown away by the our kind and gracious host, Aymee, who always greeted our return with a genuine “how was your day?” and a warm embrace. When Rob’s bicycle seat was stolen, our first day in Havana, she found us a new seat (not an easy feat in Cuba)! If you are in Havana, I would strongly recommend Case Mirador la Colina as a safe refuge from the city.
We were excited to start working with the Spanky Project. Each veterinary project we have volunteered with has its own unique set of challenges and rewards. For our first day, a mass vaccination campaign and parasite treatment regime had been arranged in Old Havana. The project works closely with and has the support of several Cuban animal welfare groups as well as local veterinarians. Approximately 135 animals received rabies vaccinations, topical flea and tick medication and internal parasite treatment. The day proceeded smoothly and we were excited to find Cuban pet owners well educated and knowledgable about their pets health. One pet owner inquired as to what topical external parasite treatment we were using, as her dog had reacted poorly to Fipronil in the past.Another told us her dog had had a treatment of ivermectin one month ago and wondered if another treatment would be okay.
We were also excited to be working with veterinarians from the local area. The collaboration and support of the local veterinary community in Cuba is a unique part of the Spanky project and one of the reasons we wanted to work with them. As volunteers, we are always sensitive to the long term impact a project has on both the local pet population, pet owners and also the local veterinary community. Hopefully, a project has both a positive impact to reduce pet overpopulation, improve animal welfare and educate the local community on the benefits of sterilization, vaccination and animal welfare. A good project also considers the impact their actions have on the local veterinary community. For example by offering free sterilization programs are we also taking away the bread and butter of a local veterinarian? A truly great project attempts to engage and train local people who can benefit from these new found skills and sustain the work you started, long after you leave. It is my belief that all volunteer organizations should have a long term view that considers the sustainability question. Kind of like like running a great veterinary practice. Hire quality people, support them, train them and nurture them until you become redundant and can walk away, knowing your legacy will continue without you. Perhaps this is an idealistic view but it was exciting to see the Spanky Project considering the end goal. In addition to practicing veterinarians from Havana, there were also veterinarians from Matanzas, Cardenas and one assistant from as far away as Guantanamo participating on this campaign. Students from the University of Havana rotated through the different areas of our temporary hospital, including admission, pre surgical examination, anesthesia, surgery and recovery. Students were keen to take advantage of the opportunity the Spanky Project offered them and they allows bring a great energy to any project. Many students commented that this was where they would learn how to spay and neuter small animals and that they were learning more here than in the university classroom. Several students who participated in past campaigns, were nurtured by the Spanky volunteers and have now graduated as Doctors and Doctoras were back to volunteer with the 2018 campaign. That, I believe, fulfills the goal of sustainability.
Despite all of these positives there is still one big elephant in the room. With an educated pet owning population and well trained local veterinarians, open to collaboration why is it so rare to see sterilized dogs and cats on our travels throughout Cuba? Why is overpopulation still a problem? In every town we have visited, in every casa we stay, it is extremely rare to see a sterilized animal. Overpopulation is evident across the country and one casa owner, a biology professor in Holguin, told us she had a very hard time finding a veterinarian who was willing to spay her cat. As in most countries, you need to talk to people and look beneath the surface to find the reasons. Despite an excellent education system, the veterinary training here has a different focus than in countries like Canada. Culturally there is still some resistance and misunderstanding about the benefits of sterilization. Without Bob Barker telling everyone to “remember to spay and neuter your pets”, the message just has not gotten through to the average Cuban pet parent. In addition, a surgery we consider routine, is far from routine if you have never had the opportunity to actually preform a spay before you graduate from veterinary school. This leaves the average Cuban veterinarian somewhat uncomfortable with offering this service. But perhaps the biggest problem is the reliable availability of the anesthetic agents and medications needed to practice veterinary medicine in Cuba. As with everything here, there are two markets, the usual marketplace (whose shelves, while better than several years ago, are still essentially bare) and the black market. Again it isn’t always a matter of being able to afford consumer goods, the goods simply are not available unless you “know a guy”. Talking to a few of the Cuban veterinarians working on the project, they confirmed this and commented that the farmacia shelves for humans are dangerously lacking and for veterinarians it is even more difficult.
Our wiring at the project
In Cuba, you just make things work!
Obviously the Spanky Project is doing its part to help with exposing students, veterinarians and the pet owning population to anesthesia, surgical technique and postoperative care of veterinary patients. As more veterinarians are able to reliably preform and offer sterilization services pet owners will see the benefits in healthier pets that live longer and suffer less injuries and illnesses, lessening the need for a “Cuban Bob Barker”!As for the problems with bare pharmacy shelves we can only hope that time will improve the situation.
The best part of working with the Spanky Project, however, was without a doubt the amazing group of passionate and dedicated volunteers from both Canada and the USA.Terry, Audrey, Micheal, Michelle, Byron, Stephanie, Gordana, Joe and Jamie. As well as all the amazing Cuban volunteers we met Gusto, Claudia and Katcha to name just three (okay, I admit it, I can’t remember the other names!). You took us in, made us feel welcome and at home and even let us do a few surgeries!Here is hoping we meet again, can share another Mojito and our passion for Cuba, its pets and the people that make it so special!
Hasta luego Amigos,
Elaine and Rob
Final disclaimer, there may have been several mojitos consumed during the making of this blog…I cannot be held responsible for the opinions held by a slightly inebriated version of myself.
During our time in Botswana we have sterilized 413 dogs and cats, vaccinated 441 animals, preformed 3 limb amputations, several minor surgeries and one blood transfusion over a period of 25 working days. While these numbers look good on paper, andof course it feels good to do something rather than nothing (For the love of dog), it still feels like a drop in the ocean, so overwhelming is the need. Despite this, I suspect some of you might also be asking yourself the obvious question:“why travel abroad to provide free veterinary care when there are plenty of animals in need in your own , backyard?” My response?It’s complicated.
Cuddles from a patient in Canada
Thank you from a patient in Botswana
Although many of you know me as a veterinary practice owner and hospital manager, I was not always “the boss” and during my years in the profession I have had the opportunity to work as both an associate veterinarian (employed vet) and a locum veterinarian (relief vet). I have experienced different management styles and a variety of working conditions, from a militant, fear based approach to controlling employees, to the extreme hands off approach where the “monkeys run the circus”. I have worked with vets who will never say no and whose sense of self worth is dangerously linked to the need to be loved by every client. I have watched teams suffer low pay and burnout because the practice owner gave away services leaving them unable to compensate the team fairly and invest in the practice infrastructure. And as a young veterinarian, I have considered leaving the profession due to abuse and a lack of mentorship and support.
We purchased our own practice partially out of need (a baby was arriving in a month and we needed an income) but also out of a desire to provide a stable and positive workplace for our staff.The reality is, a veterinary practice is a small business. It needs to be profitable, your team deserves competitive salaries, benefits, to feel valued and be treated with respect. This does not happen on its own.It takes effort and has an associated cost.Profitability in a veterinary practice allows a practice owner to take care of their team as well as maintain software, invest in new equipment and improve the quality of care your pet receives. Unfortunately, some in our profession and the public at large, think the word “profit” somehow makes us a less noble profession. “Don’t you do it for the love of the animals? Shame on you that you want to make a good living too!” What they fail to see is the link between the profitability of a veterinary practice and the level of job satisfaction and happiness of the employees working in that practice.
Over the years we have often discussed the 80:20 rule with our team, the law of the vital few or as it is properly termed, the Pareto principle. Named after an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who who observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population, this principle can be applied in a wide range of situations from management practices to lifestyle choices. At its core, the Pareto principles states that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes. 80% of the result come from 20% of the causes. Or, for example, 80% of your profits come from 20% of your clients or at home you spend 80% of your time in just 20% of the your rooms or despite having 35 apps on your smart phone, you use 20% of them, 80% of the time. I love this principle and it’s wide reaching applications but for the point of this article, lets focus on the Pareto principle’s as it applies to client complaints in veterinary practice. Although it may not feel like it some days, the truth is, a small number of your clients are unhappy, complain and make your life as a vet unrewarding and stressful.The majority of clients are great to deal with, appreciative and are the reason we love our jobs as veterinarians.As long as you recognize the 80:20 rule, it’s all good.The problem develops when you start to believe the comments from the 20% and base your management decisions on the complaints of this vocal minority.For some, your fees will never be low enough, your clinic never clean enough, your hours never accommodating enough and your caring and compassion never altruistic enough.
I have been told “you don’t care, you’re only in it for the money” more times than I care to recall and while I understand the emotions behind this response, it is the most unoriginal way to berate your vet.Trust me, if we were just in it for the money, we would not be veterinarians.So the question still remains, how do you manage a successful and profitable practice while still giving back to the community?How do you choose which clients deserve a discount or charity and which do not? Just because a veterinary practice is profitable, does not mean they do not give back to their clients and community. Often the discounts, free exams, free treatments and rehoming of pets and donations to local charities is not advertised and goes unnoticed by the public.In fact, profitable practices are often able to give far more.
Veterinarians often believe they need to be all things to all pet owners.Inconsistency and trying to please everyone is a dangerous path, especially when you recall that 20% of people will be unhappy with your service regardless of your best efforts.Human nature is interesting and I have worked in practices where fees were waived for clients who could not afford veterinary care and this “free care” now becomes the expectation on future visits. The challenge is to find a way to help meet the patients needs, within the owner’s budget rather than just giving a handout.For the health of our profession, we need to educate people that pet ownership is not your right, but a privilege. A privilege that comes with a cost. Handouts can quickly become a future expectation and I have more than once, witnessed a client once grateful for a discounted or free service quickly turn nasty once the handout was discontinued.Allowing this situation to develop in your veterinary hospital affects the culture of your practice and things can quickly spiral out of your control, resulting in a team suffering from burnout and compassion fatigue fuelled by negativity, demanding clients and a lack of profits.
The idea of giving a hand up instead of a hand out can also be applied to volunteering with a project abroad. I have spent time pondering this question: by providing free veterinary care in a developing country are we actually helping or are we devaluing the service of local veterinarians and the sustainability of the project? Are we teaching the local people that we will take care of them for free and in doing so, taking work away from a local veterinarian?It is a question I struggle with but the reality is, in many of the countries we visit, the veterinary education and training is vastly different than a veterinary education in countries like North America, the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Veterinarians in many countries are either not qualified or not interested in spay and neuter programs and the yet in these areas the need for these programs is great.
For many the world is black and white and the answers to these questions are obvious.How simple things would be if this were true for myself. Instead, I see the world in shifting shades of grey and I find the answers are often elusive. All I can do is try to leave my judgement at home, ask questions and hopefully find my own answers in the many shades of grey.
Rob and I have just returned from an amazing week doing outreach clinics in the Shakawe region of Botswana.Shakawe is a village located in the northwest corner of Botswana close to Namibia and Angola. The panhandle or head waters of the Okavango delta is next door and the small community, 375 km from Maun, is without access to veterinary care.
We loaded up our rental 4WD truck with all the gear necessary for setting up a mobile spay and neuter clinic and headed north on what passes for a highway to the village of Shakawe. Fortunately traffic on this road is light, as it is littered with massive potholes often requiring us to take advantage of our 4WD and use the ditch, instead of the highway, as we navigated around the axle bending holes.Our host for the week was the lovely Ansie, who put us up at the Crocovango Crocodile farm’s research station. A shady camp with sturdy tents, a kitchen and outdoor showers made for a perfect retreat after a day of hard work. Each morning we would head to a different community in the region and set up our clinic at the local kgotla.A kgotla is a traditional meeting house for the community and our host, Ansie, had made arrangements with the local chiefs to use their kgotla for our mobile hospital.Most days the chief would arrive as we were setting up and greet us.By the end of the week I almost had the traditional handshake down, generating a few laughs as I fumbled to do it properly!For all but one of our clinics, we had shelter from sun and rain and worked inside a small building or under an overhang beside the building. One day our hospital was organized under the shade of a large tree.I think this was my favourite site however, more than once, sterility was breached by blowing leaves and crawling bugs.
We started the days early and were up by 6 am and on the road by 7 am to set up for the day.Most days, locals from the village would start to arrive with their pets around 8 am. By far the majority of dogs were brought in by local children, as their parents were at work.The children would arrive with dogs of various colours and sizes and we would give them a number and proceed to weigh their pet. Each day had the atmosphere of a “special event” starting with the fun of weighing the dogs and continuing as the children gathered around the surgical tables to watch us operate. On one of the slower mornings, our veterinary assistant Kenny, had the children weigh their own dogs which was met with a lot of laughter and smiles.
The children would stay all day waiting for their dog (or cat) to be awake and ready to transport home. Many of them walked several miles with their pets to attend the free clinic. For the most part they were shy and quiet, always respectful and very patient, spending the day in whatever shade they could find, while they waited.
While in Shakawe we met a young boy of 12 years who arrived at the outreach clinic by himself with his dog and another small child in his care. He advised us he wanted to stay with his dog and told us “he is afraid but he is a good dog and will be comforted by my presence”.We advised him this was just fine and as we sedated the dog and started surgery, Rob started to talk to him.Because my surgery table was only a few feet away from Rob’s, I had the pleasure of listening in on their conversation. What I heard will stay with me always and pretty much sums up what we are doing here in Botswana. First, he told Rob that the young boy in his care was his 3 year old cousin who, by the way, he loved very much.He closely watched his dog’s surgery and then looked at Rob and thoughtfully said “So sir, I can see that what you are doing here helps the dogs and people of Botswana and for that we are grateful, but what I am wondering is how this benefits you”. Rob had a great response and told him the benefits to us were not something you could see, not money or pula. He said that we loved visiting Botswana and we think it is a special place. We love the wild life and that by sterilizing the dogs and vaccinating them we are helping to keep both the dogs and also the wild animals healthier. I could see the boy was both a little surprised but also proud that we loved his country and wanted to help.They then talked about the idea of “paying it forward” and that we were lucky to be in a situation that we could help the people and dogs of Botswana and that perhaps someday he would be able to remember us helping his dog and it would remind him to help someone too.By “paying it forward” each of us can do our part to make the world a better place. The conversation ended with me asking him what he wanted to do when he was an adult.He thought about this and said “I do not know what I want to do, ma’am, but I know I somehow want to make history”.
Over a beer last night, we asked ourselves what it is about Botswana and MAWS that draws us here.The days are long, hard and we come home hot, tired and smelling of urine. We are practicing veterinary medicine with the most basic of tools to service the most needy population of pets. We often feel at a loss when it comes to making a diagnosis and we try our best to help and not harm.Our patients bleed easily and profusely during surgery, our clamps don’t clamp our suture is on a spool requiring our old eyes to thread needles all day and our scissors are as dull as the ones you buy for a first grader.Yet we make do, we struggle, we laugh and at the end of the day it feels good to go home bone tired and feeling like we did some good today. It feels good to sit outside as the day cools to night and listen to the sounds of Botswana.In so many ways it takes us back to life on the Canadian Prairies, big sky and big sunsets and our roots as rural veterinarians.
If I am honest, I came to Botswana for purely selfish reasons, a chance to begin this new stage of our life with an adventure and a chance to get back in the bush with the elephants, antelope, zebra and giraffes. Volunteering with MAWS was a means to a selfish end, I regret to admit. A free place to stay in exchange for some veterinary care. But in the end it became so much more.How do you tell someone how good it feels to help an animal in need and to see the relief and thanks on the faces of those you help? How do you explain the amazing ability to make friends and deep connections with a community that will last a lifetime in just 6 short weeks? How do you thankthat samecommunity that took you in, accepted you without reservation and made you feel as if you are now a part of something bigger?
Our 7 weeks in Botswana is coming to the end and while I know we will return, it is still hard to leave.And as I sit here tonight, putting thoughts to paper,I think of that boy and his question “I was wondering, how this benefits you?” How do I answer this? How do I put what is in my heart into words? For me, it has always been easier to give than to receive. Independent, stubborn and raised to stand on my own two feet, asking for and accepting help is something that is difficult for me.So tonight, as we approach this season of giving, I choose to just graciously accept the joy and happiness thatBotswana has given me and simply be grateful to “feel” how this benefits me.
It is midday in a crowed market place in downtown La Paz, Baja California Sur when I realize what started as a feeling of being “slightly off” this morning is quickly turning into a tsunami in my bowels.The smell of meat in the open air butcher shop is not helping my condition. I swat away the flies buzzing around both the hanging sides of beef and my head and suddenly, it hits me.I need a bathroom and I need it NOW! I am too embarrassed to say what happened next, but I am sure you can guess.As the saying goes, shit happens!
It was 1994 when two prairie farm kids decided to take two months off work and travel from Alberta, Canada to the tip of Baja California on motorcycles.As kids, our family holidays consisted mostly of camping trips, ski holidays and trips to the big city of Calgary for back to school shopping.International travel, was either outside the family budget or outside the family comfort zone.Looking back, it no longer seems like such an epic adventure, but what we did not realize, is how pivotal that trip would be in our evolution both professionally and personally.As veterinarians, leaving a mixed animal practice for two months to travel, was not done and, in hindsight, it was the first nail in the coffin of our failing partnership.Leaving that prairie partnership, while terrifying, became the first step towards creating a life that was the right fit for us, rather than trying to make ourselves fit into the life we thought we should live.From crashing my bike on a winding, mountain road in the northern California redwoods to stripping down to our swim suits so we could wash ALL our clothes in a small town laundromat, while the locals laughed at the crazy gringos, that trip left me wanting more. it changed the way I viewed myself, how I viewed the world and the way I viewed travel.
Fast forward several years. We own our own practice, now have two small children and have finally managed to book a locum for a glorious two week holiday. We decide, it is time to have an adventure. The plan is for Rob to drive our Toyota truck, loaded with camping gear and supplies to San Diego.I will stay and work for a few extra days, then the kids and I will drive 2 1/2hours to Spokane, Washington (the nearest major airport) and fly to join Rob. From San Diego we will head south to Baja to recreate that epic trip, this time with two children in tow.Finally the exciting day arrives.Rob has made it to San Diego, enjoying 2 days of driving and blissful solitude along the way. The kids and I are on our way to the airport.Suddenly a moment of inattention leaves me standing on the side of the road beside a crumpled car with two small, nicely shaken children.A short ambulance ride and set of X-rays later and we determined to be intact and are discharged from the hospital . We once again I find myself standing beside the side of the road, holding a small pack filled with snacks and activities for the airplane as well as the hands of two small, nicely shaken children.It is at this point my son, James looks at me and asks “Mom, what are we going to do now?”. I bend down, lean in and say in a cheery mom voice “Well, we are all okay and so we are going on this holiday.I guess we will just have to hitch hike “.Unknown to me, the driver who towed our car into town overheard us and quickly realized I was not kidding.He kindly took pity on us and offered a ride.It was an unfortunate start to what turned into an amazing trip.From learning to do the stingray shuffle on the beach at Baja Conception to petting gray whales in their calving grounds at the Bay of San Ignacio, it introduced us to the joys of traveling with children. Seeing the world through their eyes, sharing adventures as a family and expanding their world, was for me, worth every episode of “shit happens”.
The reasons for travel are as unique as the individuals who decide to take a journey. For us, travel was always a way to escape the pressures of our hectic life. To escape the internet, school pressures and just be together as a family.An opportunity to realize the world over, humans wants and needs are the same and happiness is not necessarily dependent on money or status.Then life moves along and the reasons change. Now there is no stress awaiting us upon return and the experience or journey becomes more important. We have discovered that having a community to connect with enriches the experience and working with organizations like the Maun Animal Welfare Society has allowed us to meet amazing people, interact with the local community and get a better sense of what life here is really like.Tomorrow we head to the community of Shakawe a village in the northwest corner of Botswana where we will do daily outreach clinics over the next week. It will be hot, dirty and hard work but also a fun adventure, a chance to make new connections, see a new part of this country and, of course, to see what “shit happens”!
After two weeks volunteering with the Maun Animal Welfare Society (MAWS), I feel my jaded heart melting thanks to the amazing dogs of Botswana. While they come in all sizes and various shades of brown, white, tan and brindle, the best way to picture these sweet canines is to close your eyes and imagine Santa’s little helper, the cartoon dog from the Simpsons. They come to us in various states of condition, but the most common is painfully thin, often with pendulous nipples from nursing multiple litters and sometimes with unexplained injuries and wounds. They arrive at the clinic somewhat timid and fearful but amazingly, after what they have survived, with gentle care, food and a safe haven, they quickly warm up to us. After a few days we see their natural resiliency take over and we get to know their individual personalities. The weary old girl who just wants a soft bed and kind word, the mischievous puppy determined to be the boss of every dog (and human) at MAWS and the fun-loving pest, constantly under foot and in our way.
A warning: the photos in this post may be upsetting to some readers. Please know my goal is not to shock but to simply report on our experience working as veterinarians in Maun, Botswana. It is easy to pass judgement and assume such things would never happen in another country, like Canada, for example. Sadly, this is not true, and my own dog Stella, is a living example of the ignorance and mistreatment that can lead to suffering of animals the world over. When volunteering abroad as a professional, it is all to easy to assume “we know better”, however the reality is if we leave our judgements at home, we can learn something new and come away richer for the experience. I can guarantee there is no way we could sterilize 26 animals in 7 hours the way we do it at home!
This blog is dedicated to the dogs of Maun, you’ve won my heart. You have taken me back to the beginning, why I was called to this profession and why I do what I do, to care for these creatures who share our lives. I have been a vet for 26.5 years and worked in veterinary hospitals since the age of 16 when I got my first “real” job at our families veterinary clinic. That’s 34 years of puppy kisses, stinky messes, happy outcomes and sad goodbyes. A long journey from a wide-eyed teenager so very determined to become a veterinarian to a retired practice owner spaying dogs in the bush in Botswana. While I marvel at where those years went, what I find even more amazing is how I did it for 26+ years.
Veterinarians are a funny bunch and the reasons why we choose this profession are as unique as the individuals themselves. What seems like an amazing career is currently suffering from the highest rate of compassion fatigue, burnout and suicide of any profession in both North America and other parts of the world. The selection process to gain acceptance into veterinary school rewards those who are competitive and independent. Huge amounts of medical, surgical and scientific information are forced into our brains during our 6 to 8 years of training with little thought to the art of dealing with our true clients, the human at the end of the leash. We are given little instruction in the art of business and human resource management, needed to run a small business (news flash, veterinarians are not just doctors they are entrepreneurs). Add to this a lack of mentorship, high student debt, low salaries, huge client expectations/demands and online reputation slander and the multiple factors associated with veterinary burnout and depression become, if not clear, at least understandable. And yet, some of us thrive, laugh, build an amazing career and find ways to cope. Family, an amazing partner (who just happens to be a vet too), strong friendships and an optimistic nature were my salvation. But those who know me, know that over the last few years, it wore me down. Dealing with business matters, mentoring and training a team (even great people don’t just become a team without leadership) and difficult clients blinded me to the “fun side” of being a vet. The medicine, the good outcomes, helping make someone’s day a little brighter and the furry, four-legged beasts who called me to this professional were all getting a little lost in all the “other stuff” that running a practice entailed.
Since arrival we have sterilized so many animals, I have now lost count. They come in with gums so pale pink, they are closer to white. We give anesthetic agents I would shudder to use at home, and yet our patients bounce back and recover despite my concerns. These dogs are tough! We have a lovely old lady hanging out at the clinic after being found with the most horrifying burn along her entire back. Apparently she was stealing eggs and someone threw boiling water on her. She is starting to trust us, is turning out to be a sweet and gentle girl and is going to recover.
On arrival at MAWS Clinic
After a few days with us
She has little concern about the scar she will carry for the rest of her life and just wants to be loved. We have another young girl awaiting surgery to amputate a limb who has been walking about on a stump of a hind leg with no pads, toes and a horribly infected leg. How this happened, apparently no one knows, but she patiently lets us examine her painful limb with no attempts to snap or bite.
So here I sit, on a little deck in Botswana, listening to the call of the cicadas, doves and various other evening creatures whose names I do not know and I feel the joy of being a vet creeping back. What I am doing here is so basic compared to the level of care the pets in our old practice received. No fancy cosmetic surgeries for stenotic nares, no diagnosis of autoimmune anemias or chemotherapy treatments to give a client a few more good months with a beloved companion. Are we making a difference? We hope so as it is the only skill I have to offer. Does it really matter? We’d like to think it does but the need is so overwhelming, it truly is hard to say. On a World Vets trip last winter, a group of volunteers sat around debating exactly this question. Are we actually making a difference when we come to a foreign country to sterilize and vaccinate dogs and cats or are we simply feeding our own ego? Volunteers threw out their opinions but the one that stayed with me came from a veterinary student, Emily, who said something to the effect of “for those animals you helped today, it made a difference and isn’t it better to do something than to do nothing?”.
Even if it is something small, in a world in need of so much more, sometimes a small thing is all you can do. Thank you dogs for forgiving us our humanness.