Various challenges can arise when working abroad, such as getting used to a new culture and/or adapting to a new schedule. For Julia Avery, DVM, her biggest challenge in Baghdad, Iraq, is making the most of the limited veterinary medical supplies.
“The lack of supplies and equipment is the worst challenge,” says Dr. Avery, who has been working for the American K-9 Detection Services (AMK9) since September 2011. The Lake Mary, Fla.-based company offers contract working dog detection services to a variety of clients, including government agencies.
Avery, who through the company is part of the U.S. Baghdad Embassy Security Force, works as a civilian veterinarian taking care of the roughly 200 contract working dogs. The dogs protect the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulates by detecting explosives at entry check points and other areas and sweeping venues or routes that may be utilized by the ambassador or other VIPs, among other duties.
To help overcome some of the medical supply limitations, Avery has networked with many of the human providers to acquire most of the needed medications and dry goods. Still, there are other challenges to contend with, such as poor mail service—Avery says she might get something sent over six to eight weeks after an initial request—and limited laboratory services.
Avery is also the only American veterinarian in Baghdad and the only vet treating the AMK9 working dogs. Her days can be varied and long because she is on call 24/7. One day may be spent conducting semi-annual physical exams or administering vaccines and the next may entail tending to a laceration or wound.
Heat-related injuries and dehydration can also be a big issue, Avery says, noting that temperatures can soar to 132 degrees Fahrenheit.
Avery’s other duties: surgeries and dentals as needed, administrative work (e.g. ordering supplies, conducting inventories and recording invoices), sanitation and wellness inspections on the kennel facilities and teaching classes on basic canine first aid to the dog handlers.
“I am pretty much a one-woman show over here,” Avery says.
Despite the challenges, the reward is big.
“The spirit of these dogs amazes me,” Avery says, when asked if she has any memorable dog stories.
One in particular is a dog named Luna who was sick for a few days. Her gums were muddy and tacky, she exhibited labored breathing and she had no energy. Avery started Luna on IV fluids and antibiotics and told the handlers to prepare for the worst.
Radiographs revealed pneumonia.
Avery was able to acquire a couple of oxygen tanks and a nebulizer but had to be creative in how to approach the rest of her treatment.
“We manufactured a cone to put over her nose using a male urinal by cutting off the end and using duct tape to secure the oxygen source to the modified urinal,” Avery says. “Three days later and 24-hour care by the kennel master and other handlers, she began coming around.”
At press time, about three weeks after Luna was brought in, she was reportedly doing very well.
“She is tromping around playful as a pup again,” Avery says. “Under the circumstances we work in, miracles and love happen.”
It’s this perseverance and devotion to animals that makes Avery such a good veterinarian, according to Kelli Sanders, DVM, a supervisor of veterinarians for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Dr. Sanders and Avery met in 1996 at Colorado State University while attending vet school and have remained friends throughout the years.
“[Avery] is a very sincere person,” Sanders says. “She cares very deeply about all animals, and people as well. I think that is one of her strong traits is that she’s so passionate about what she does.”
The Road to Baghdad
It was being a veterinarian in the United States Army Reserve that got her an “in” with American K-9 Detection Services, Avery says. She joined the Veterinary Corps in 2009.
“I wanted an adventure, and I have quite a few family members who were or are in one branch or service or another,” she says. “I wanted to be part of something bigger and see other parts of the world.”
Although her job is not through the Corps, her military experience and background help when working in this type of environment, she says.
“I have learned to be very adaptable, can sleep through very loud noises and have met some amazing people from all corners of the globe,” Avery says.
Avery says it was when she was 25 years old and in a job “going nowhere” that she decided to become a veterinarian. She was a single mom with a 3-year-old son.
“I needed to do something to improve our lives,” she says. “I always loved animals and horses. I thought about being a vet tech but ultimately wanted to be my own boss. So, I decided to become a vet.”
Avery spoke with a counselor at Aims Community College in Greeley, Colo., to see how to get the ball rolling. The counselor gave Avery the general outline of what she needed to achieve in school, including high grades, making sure each semester was filled with difficult courses and relevant volunteer work.
She began attending the community college in 1993 and then transferred to Colorado State University in 1994 for her undergraduate courses. Meanwhile, she also got involved in community activities and started volunteering with a veterinarian who later wrote a recommendation letter for her to attend CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Avery graduated in May 2000.
She then went on to own her own practice in Golden, Colo., focusing on equine and food animals. Avery subsequently worked in a couple of other practices also geared toward large animals.
“I started out tracking large animal/equine in school and that was all I did for the first few years out of school,” she says.
Avery decided to branch out to small animal medicine in 2005 but says she found the experience trying.
“All I was searching for was for someone to take me under their wing, teach me what they have learned and find a stable, secure position where I could thrive financially and professionally, become part of a community and stay there,” Avery says.
Poor mentorship and a few “less than optimal experiences” made it difficult to achieve these goals, she says. Still, it didn’t get her down.
“Somehow I have managed to retain my love for my job,” she says. “I learned a lot from everyone I have worked with, and will continue to learn. For now, I am enjoying this challenge [in Baghdad] and the many people and working dogs I work with. It is very rewarding.”