26. November 2017 · Comments Off on Giving Back in Costa Rica and Nicaragua · Categories: Blog Post, Volunteering

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” – AESOP

In 2010 I participated in a program called VIDA (http://www.vidavolunteer.org/). Their mission is to positively impact the quality of life in underserved communities while offering volunteers a life changing experience (I got that off their website). They offer volunteer opportunities in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala with dental, medical and veterinary programs. Some programs are combined, or you arrive together then separate into your respective programs before being whisked away to either a hotel or a host family. During my trip we had hotels the entire time, shared rooms with four people to a room, but great hotels.

You don’t have to be a vet, a doctor or a dentist to participate but being a student or having a desire to enter these programs is a definite plus and the more experience you have the more you will get to do. And it’s not all about the program, they also take you to local restaurants, on a hiking tour, to the beach and ziplining. I did not do the zip lining (the whole heights thing) and it turns out I am the only one who has ever done VIDA and declined ziplining. Oh well, I took a nap on the bus instead.

Every day we spent around 8 hours performing spays and neuters on various dogs (strays and owned animals) as well as giving them vaccines and vitamin injections. All this was done in schools or community buildings with no air conditioning and not the most sterile conditions. It was 40 degrees Celsius and we fought to keep the sweat from dripping into the surgical site.

We paired up and were monitored and assisted by a licensed veterinarian. In Costa Rica the people were very open to us spaying and neutering their animals but in Nicaragua groups of us had to go door to door and try to convince people to participate in this program. People in Nicaragua were very suspicious of this and didn’t think it was good for their animal. It was a challenge. We tried to explain to them that it keeps the stray dog populations and diseases down for a healthier community, but they were still suspicious of us.

With these programs you see a lot of different diseases than you would normally see at home. Most of the dogs had so many ticks on the inside of their ears that you couldn’t see the inside of the ear, which leads to various tick born diseases, one in particular called Erhlichia. In Cosa Rica a lot of the dogs had scabies, a mite that causes hair loss, extreme itching and affects people.

It was my first experience with small animal surgery, as I was only just finishing my first year as a veterinary student (you don’t start doing surgery until your 3rd year, in North America at least). In North America surgery is a very sterile affair. You scrub in and scrub the animal, here it was minimal and like I said before we were fighting not to sweat into the surgical field. A couple of other differences was the use of injectable anesthetics instead of gas and using zip ties to tie off the ovaries, not suture material. But it all worked and from my discussions with the veterinarians on duty, who have been participating with this program for many years, there have not been of any significant complications.

When we were in Costa Rica, my partner (a classmate and good friend of mine) and I took on all the scabies dogs and I had my first experience with the bleeding that can happen with Erhlichia positive dogs. It was a little unnerving, but my partner was stoic as ever, taking the lead. I should say that before I went to veterinary school, I didn’t work in clinics, it wasn’t my goal to be a practitioner so a lot of this was new to me. I wanted to make a difference and felt this program was a good opportunity to get my feet wet.

I think in the end participating in this kind of program made me a better doctor. It also started a fire in me and a desire to participate in other programs, offering my services to make a difference in the lives of others. I highly recommend this program to those interested in the medical field because it is a wonderful opportunity to give back, see another way of life, and to learn more about another culture.

Have you volunteered in any programs that changed how you see life? Let me know!