Colorful drawings of whales and other sea creatures decorate a room that in less than a morning is transformed from a primary-school science lab into one of the most efficient veterinary clinics in all of Honduras. I’m here to help, but that’s me near the deep-blue block wall, feeling like a complete fish out of water.
As a volunteer, the only thing I can claim in common with the clinic’s cadre of professionals, including five experienced U.S. veterinarians, is the official World Vets scrub shirt I received in the mail. Hey, at least when I first put it on I looked like I belonged.
That illusion shatters quickly when, after patient training, veterinary technician Laurie Doton asks me to fill a syringe with a pre-surgery sedative. What I hear is, “Please cut yourself and bleed all over the cement floor, causing curious children and their parents to look at each other in horror as they wonder just exactly what they’ve gotten their pets into.”
OK, so it isn’t that bad.
Most of the horror is my own as I scramble to stop the flow of embarrassment, finally employing my no-longer-blue shirt to keep my A-positive from reaching all the room’s negative spaces. Later, around the pool at the beachfront house the clinic team shares, I find it easy to laugh at my moment of ineptitude. Turns out that on this work-and-learn vacation, there are lots of opportunities to share laughter with new friends.
Into the Fire
A sampling of future World Vets projects:
The San Francisco-based nonprofit group Animal Balance has two sterilization clinics in the works:
I have come to Roatan, in the Bay Islands of Honduras, in part for the sunshine and the snorkeling but mainly because I want to sample the clinic experience. For close to a decade, I have written for this magazine and others about veterinary issues and trends, interviewing scores of clinicians, mostly over the phone. These professionals regularly give as much time as it takes for me to understand the processes and procedures, the husbandry and humanity that make up veterinary medicine today.
Now I want an inside look and to give something back to do my small part to help animals in need. In the end, the trip gives me that chance, but it gives me much more. I tiptoe into the culture of animal welfare and it wraps me in an embrace I didn’t expect.
I know World Vets well from having talked numerous times with co-founder Cathy King, DVM, Ph.D., as well as those who volunteer for the nonprofit organization that for nine years has provided free veterinary care and safe pet population control in mostly Third World nations where the needs are greatest.
From one MASH-style clinic in Cozumel, Mexico, the World Vets mission has grown to include 23 international projects in 2009, with an expanded schedule planned for this year. Destinations range from Costa Rica and Peru to Romania and Southeast Asia.
Since Dr. Cathy sold her practice in Washington state, relocated to Fargo, N.D., and took on the full-time role of World Vets CEO last year, she has been training new trip leaders, allowing her to focus on building capacity and developing new projects. However, when she says is leading the Roatan trip, I jump at an invitation to volunteer.
I join a team spearheaded not just by Dr. Cathy but by DVMs Jerry Brown from Seattle, Winnie Krogman from New Hampshire, David Landers from Texas and Tom Parker from New Mexico. The rest of the contingent is made up of technicians, veterinary students and two neophytes like me. All participants pay their own travel expenses, with veterinarians exempted from World Vets trip fees because they contribute their diagnostic and surgical skills.
From the moment group members assemble in the Roatan airport, it’s clear everyone has packed the right attitude for success.
It’s important that people quickly adopt a team approach, because challenges are omnipresent. Transportation is often eight to a pickup truck bed. Supplies and equipment are stretched to their limit, and the clinic space is a test of adaptability. Wooden tables rest on cinder blocks to make them the right height for surgery. A blue tarp on the floor serves as the recovery room. An IV line works just fine after being zip-tied to the handle of a shovel held flush against the wall by a folding chair.
Those expecting a resort experience undoubtedly go home disappointed.
Egos do flare on some trips, Dr. Cathy says, but usually they’re quickly consumed by a prevailing spirit of shared purpose. During our stay, that spirit pervades, and it begins with King, who is quick to find the humor in all dilemmas and who bunks on a blow-up mattress in a converted dining space, leaving the house’s five bedrooms for others to claim.
It helps that the rented house is perfect for building camaraderie. It’s open and airy, with a wealth of communal spaces and a beach just steps from its pool and palapa. For many of us, each day begins and often ends with a swim along the edges of the largest barrier reef this side of Australia.
We spend our first couple of days exploring the island, learning about each other and setting up the clinic. A prerequisite for a World Vets visit is that local volunteers help with logistics, and we have two heroes in U.S. expatriates Sandra and Al Segarich. They know every inch of the island, can scrounge up just about any clinic necessities and are even good at negotiating discounts on rainforest zip-line tours.
Not a Cure-All
Still, the first of the three clinic days begins with a healthy dose of nervous energy. Dr. Cathy tells me I can get training and rotate through all the volunteer stations, from sterilizing instruments to administering immunizations, pre-surgery prep to post-op recovery. It’s hard to imagine such immersion would be possible in a U.S. clinic.
The day starts slowly as word spreads that free care is available. Population-control efforts are new to the island, and the skill level of the only local veterinarian is far from universally trusted. With countless island dogs and cats roaming free to procreate, is it foolish to think we can make a dent in the problem? Yes and no, the veterinarians say. To stem the tide of overpopulation, we would need to spay or neuter 70 percent of the dogs and cats on the island, says Dr. Tom. Our goal is to treat 300 to 400 animals, so we won’t come close to 70 percent.
As with so much of this work, it’s better to focus on what’s possible, not what’s optimal. Before the clinic opens, Dr. Winnie and Dr. Tom go from classroom to classroom, explaining why we’re here and passing out donated leashes. The youngsters already know the island has an overpopulation problem, so maybe the culture is starting to change.
“We plan to come back year after year,” Dr. Cathy says. “We look for incremental improvement.”
As the first day progresses, I lose count of the things I’m doing for the first time. I’m drawing blood, administering pre-meds and antibiotics, plus the Big C–catheterization. All that and no casualties, at least among the pets.
During a rare moment of down time, I watch Dr. Jerry assist technician and veterinary school student Matt Katz with his first surgery. The veterinarian offers praise as he redirects the beam of his headlamp, which later will illuminate red snapper as he barbecues in the half-light of dusk.
“Learning new things and teaching others are what I like best about these projects,” Dr. Jerry says. “That and the community part of the experience.”
Later that evening, as team members dangle their feet in the pool and deconstruct the day, I ask how many people are like me and did multiple things for the first time today. Hands go up and stories flow.
“It’s the first time I’ve gone to the principal’s office,” says Dr. Cathy, who got permission for up-close observation by an older student she learned wants to be a veterinarian.
Technician and veterinary student DeAnna Barone describes her first neuter: “It was the first time I threw a tissue on the floor and didn’t have to pick it up.”
Vet tech Christina Sloan marks her first time carrying a 70-pound dog across the street and putting him in the trunk of a taxi.
“Welcome to Central America,” Dr. Tom says with a smile.
Someone notes it must have been hard to let them close the trunk lid.
“I made them tie it open with a rope,” she says.
At week’s end, there are hugs all around as people rush to make flights home. I pack up a boatload of memories and mounds of respect gleaned from the veterinarians’ countless examples of grace under pressure.
But for me, the real revelation is the skill and versatility of the veterinary technicians. Where would I have been without the teachings of Laurie Doton and Heather McCabe, who almost single-handedly took me from embarrassment to occasional displays of competence? By departure day, they have me believing I made a difference and that I might be able to do something like this again.
That’s good, because I hear something close to a reunion is developing, with at least four team members signed up for a clinic in Grenada.
Plus, I have my eye on a possible summer World Vets project in Tanzania.
After all, I’m never bled all over Africa. <HOME>
This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Veterinary Practice News