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Thursday
Jan042018

International Veterinary Experience Committee Scholarship Winner

My Equitarian Travels

How does a small animal veterinarian (formerly veterinary student!) find himself deep in the jungles of Costa Rica, castrating stallions, floating teeth, and wrangling rambunctious foals? It was late August 2016, and I had been in clinics since March. Not a terribly long time, admittedly, but nonetheless I was feeling the grind of senior student life beginning to wear on me. I had always wanted to either study abroad or get involved with an international project, even going back to my undergrad years. For one reason or another, however, the timing never seemed right, and I never went. Thinking back on it, it was mostly my own fault; it’s easy to make excuses to not do something.

As September drew near, the threat of boards hung in the air. “It’s possible to cram for boards, right?” I told myself. I had also convinced myself that I absolutely had to pursue an internship, and I really should have been working on my applications. On top of all this, I was starting to feel the imposter syndrome set in. Every small mistake, forgotten drug dosage, or missed treatment were all confirmations that I simply was not meant to be a veterinarian. Clearly, it was time for a change of pace.

This is never too bad for the soul.

Interestingly enough, I was actually terrified of horses prior to my attending veterinary school. My mother was a rider, at least when she was younger, and I swear my cousins will have completely horse-themed weddings and invite their horses into their houses for supper time. That was not me. I thought if I walked within 50 yards of a horse, it would take one look at me, smell the fear, and simply trample me over. As a first-year, I resolved to overcome my fear. I didn’t want to be that fourth-year who was completely inept on their Large Animal rotations. So I signed up to be a technician in the Tufts Hospital for Large Animals. It was decent pay, and I mostly got to set my own hours. More importantly though, it completely changed my relationship with horses. I came to realize that they’re basically just big cats - moody, dramatic to the core, and grossly lacking in common sense. However, I found they also were among the warmest and most affectionate animals I had ever worked with. Working with them could at times be almost therapeutic. During my time as a technician, I was able to form a wonderful relationship with one of our Equine faculty, Dr. Melissa Mazan. It was to her that I reached out when I was looking for my change.

 

 

Through Melissa, I was put in touch with Dr. Jay Merriam, world-famous equine veterinarian, cofounder of Project Samaná in the Dominican Republic, and all around wonderful person. I explained to him that I was looking to get out of the country and put my skills as a budding veterinarian to good use. Jay was very welcoming and informed me that he was going to Costa Rica in January with the Equitarian Initiative, a group of like-minded equine veterinarians dedicated to promoting self-sustaining veterinary missions in developing countries. It made absolutely no difference that I had no interest in being an equine veterinarian professionally; all they wanted was eagerness, enthusiasm, and a willingness to get a little dirty. Check. This was my ticket. I submitted my application, and after speaking with Dr. Julie Wilson (another terrific person and head of the EI) over the phone, I was invited to join their adventure. I was also invited to spend an additional week with another group, Costa Rican Equine Welfare, under Dr. Neil Grey. Needless to say, I was getting very excited.

The Conte Burica Team!

The next several months went by, actually better than expected. Boards came and went (I passed!) and I was on a block that afforded me much more free time, so I had an opportunity to reorient myself with life outside of veterinary medicine. I began gathering all the things I would need for my trip to Costa Rica: tent, sleeping bag, sunscreen, bug-spray (a lot of it), and all other sorts of outdoorsy gear. Finally, after a long 4 weeks on Emergency & Critical Care, I hopped on a plane in the middle of the freezing cold January and was off for Costa Rica!

I arrived in San Jose late on a Friday night, and was shuttled over to a rather nice hotel that had a pool. The pool would become the object of my desire during the following two weeks, although I did not realize it at the time. We played a nice little game of “get to know each other” among the other team members over pizza and beer in the common room, and then bunked down for the night. We had an 8 hour bus ride to look forward to from San Jose to Puerto Jiménez, our destination. The ride provided the group was a nice opportunity to chat amongst each other, and we had a few rather interesting stops along the way. I’ll let the photo below speak for itself.

 

We arrived in Puerto Jiménez late on Saturday, and were immediately whisked away to a local restaurant where a “special surprise” had been prepared for us. We were served a hot bowl of delicious fish soup (although something a bit more cooling would have been nice, seeing as I was already sweating profusely 5 minutes after stepping off the air-conditioned bus) and were entertained by a troupe of adorable little girls who were dressed to hilt in traditional clothing and performed a traditional Costa Rican dance. 

After our meal, we were transported to what would be our living quarters for the next week. It was a Senior Center, except that there were no permanent residents. The elderly came to the center during the weekday hours, and went home at night and on the weekends. So it was our space to camp out. We managed to cram about 25 people into the common space, and luckily they had several high-powered fans on full-blast (I struggle tremendously to block out noises at night, particularly snoring).

 

The next day, as we hastily scarfed down breakfast and freshly brewed coffee, we were greeted by the immense rumble of what sounded like an eighteen-wheeler pulling up to the front gates. Instead it was one of the local cattle trucks. Surprise! Our ride was here. The 25 of us crammed ourselves and all of our gear into the back of the truck, and found what little pockets of air and personal space were available. It was a very Temple Grandin-like experience, and I can assure you that every one of us developed a deep sympathy for the animals that were transported like this on a daily basis.

 

Our destinations were anywhere from 20 minutes down the road to over an hour away. Once we arrived, several of the senior group members would disperse and scout out the farm for good places to set up the stations. There was Registration, Intake/Triage, Surgery, Dentistry, and Farriery - not a bad set up! I’ll put in a plug here for the importance of ferrier work in these sorts of projects; it was by far our busiest station, as almost every single horse that came through needed at least a trim, if not more serious corrections. And we were incredibly fortunate to have an amazing Farrier with us, Paul; a true southern gentleman who worked himself to the bone day in and day out. Dentistry was also quite busy, and turned out to be my favorite station; simply put, power tools are fun. 

Interestingly, Surgery ended up being a lot slower than I expected (and indeed slower than even the other senior members expected). The idea of castrating animals in many countries is met with a lot of hesitation, but the EI and other mission projects had been in the area for quite some time. It was difficult to tell whether or not the lack of castrations was due to persistent reluctance to bring stallions for castration, or whether many of the stallions in the area were already castrated due to changing perceptions about the practice. My command of Spanish was quite limited, so I did not get a chance to really ask any of the locals about this. If I have one recommendation for anyone considering doing service work abroad, it is to seriously invest some time into learning the local language, particularly if it’s something as broad-spoken as Spanish. It will make your work substantially easier, and you will find it infinitely more rewarding if you are able to converse with those from a completely different culture.

 

And so it went for the whole week. We saw anywhere from 50 to 75 horses per day, each one receiving a full exam, vaccines and antiparasitics, as well as whatever further care it needed. All the while the locals were incredibly hospitable to us. At each location, they had prepared something special for us to ease the burdens of the workday. My favorite was the one farm that had a seemingly endless supply of coconuts in an ice water bath. The owner would carve them up for us so we could have cold, fresh coconut water to stave off the dehydration. When it’s over 95˚ F and unbearable humidity, gestures such as this endow you with a feeling of immense gratitude. Even more rewarding was that the feeling was mutual. Even though we were not charging money for services, nor could most of these people afford it even if were, there was a desire for them to show their appreciation for our work. Whether it was coconuts, a home-cooked meal, or simply a chair brought over for you to sit down for a few minutes, we were made to feel completely welcome.

Teaching the young ones how to groom.More than anything, I think this was what I found to be the most important feeling that I took away from my travels. Yes, I got a lot of hands on experience, and even though I will (probably) never castrate another horse in my life, or float any more teeth, there is certainly something to be about getting clinical training in a wide variety of skills. And I certainly enjoyed learning. But most of all, what I came away with was a sense of community and understanding, that I had connected with people whom I never otherwise would have met. The warmth, kindness, and gratitude displayed by complete strangers had a profound impact on me.

 

I feel quite strongly that all veterinarians should, at some point, participate in some form of service work, whether it be abroad or within your own local community. For me, this experience in Costa Rica was exactly what I had sought. There was immense comradery in our group, and everyone realized that we were all in this together - that’s how you make lifelong friends. Also, don’t ever discount the rewarding feeling of a good day of manual labor; I ended every day about as sweaty and dirty as could possibly be, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt better. By putting ourselves in unfamiliar situations and getting outside of our comfort zones, we learn to engage with the world around us, and we get to know ourselves just a little bit better. I strongly encourage anyone to seek out similar opportunities, and do not be afraid if it’s not exactly related to your long-term career goals - in fact, it may even be better that it not be. I promise you will not regret it.

The Final Farewell

Daniel Mordarski

The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University

 

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