Ometepe Island is a tropical jewel in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. It is largely undeveloped and reached only by a forty-minute ferry ride over notoriously rough water. The people of Ometepe have little money and rely on their animals for food and transportation, yet there is no resident veterinarian on the island. This means that many of the domestic animals suffer from disease and malnutrition.
Every year, for seven years in a row, the OSU student chapter of the International Veterinary Students Association (IVSA) has travelled to Ometepe to help.
OSU veterinary medicine students begin organizing their fall trek to Ometepe in the spring. They start early because it is a huge logistical endeavor to move dozens of volunteers, plus huge amounts of equipment and supplies, to an island 4,000 miles away. Laura Meadows is a second-year veterinary student who made her first trip to Nicaragua last fall. She was surprised by how well the complex project functioned. “We brought together students, faculty, staff, private-practice vets, and massive amounts of supplies and equipment, then transported everything and everybody via plane, bus, boat, taxi, and horse to a remote town on a small island in a third-world country. We had the trust of the community to bring their animals from miles away and we successfully treated over 300 animals. Then we cleaned up, packed all our things, and successfully got everything and everybody back home. Whew!”
With just one short week to set up and run a veterinary clinic, including a surgery, the volunteers hit the ground running. Their objective is always the same: to provide free veterinary medical care for all the island’s domestic animals. Last year alone, the volunteers treated everything from parasites to viruses, performed nearly a hundred spay and neuters, provided long-overdue dental care, and taught the villagers about everything from flea treatment to proper handwashing.
“Every morning when I walked down to the clinic, there was a line of people waiting with their animals,” says student Sara Livesay. “Some of these people waited all day just so we could examine their pet. There were a few long days where we ended up doing surgery with headlamps for light, and after the procedure the owner was still there waiting for their dog to recover so they could take them home.” In addition to working in the clinic and teaching workshops, volunteers made dozens of farm calls, often travelling by mountain bike to rural areas.
The yearly mission to Ometepe serves two purposes: provide optimal care to animals in need and give veterinary students a unique learning experience. That experience can be measured in hours spent testing for disease, sterilizing surgical instruments, and giving vaccinations but the intangible benefits may be even bigger. “This has been the single greatest experience of my life,” says student Kate Schoenhals. “The relationships I have built with people and animals over the years have made my life worth living and make me extremely enthusiastic about my future career in veterinary medicine.”
Although the volunteers pay most of their transportation costs, the cost of supplies, transporting equipment, and many other expenses are paid through generous donations from animal lovers and veterinary clinics across Oregon.