Although Ometepe island is a tropical jewel in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, it is largely undeveloped and very poor. Most people on the island rely on animals for food, work and transportation, but veterinary care is sparse and the animals often suffer from disease and malnutrition. That is why every summer for ten years in a row, a dedicated group of OSU-led volunteers have set up a free veterinary clinic on Ometepe.
It started with a group of three OSU veterinary students. In 2007, Briana Beechler, Austin Bell, and Sara Neilson participated in a non-OSU service trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It was a good learning experience, but the trio came back with plenty of ideas on how to make it better. “We decided to start a student-led service brigade to Nicaragua,” says Beechler. “In our vision, we wanted to improve animal welfare and public health by providing educational seminars, educating local students and providing veterinary care. This required setting up a site that we returned to year after year.” Ometepe was chosen and the next year they began to execute their vision.
“We sent a myriad of letters and placed many calls,” says Beechler. Eventually she was referred to Alvaro Molina who owns the Hacienda Merida, a hostel on Ometepe. He had been looking for a way to solve the problem with stray dogs and poorly fed animals on the island, which he felt reduced tourism. “With him we set up the first brigade. He helped us arrange import permits and donated an area in his hostel for the clinic. He and his employees did all the advertising and connecting with the local folks.”
On that first “trial year” trip, the brigade consisted of veterinarian Rhea Hanselmann and seven students. The next year, Beechler returned to Ometepe as a first year veterinarian, and was joined by OSU veterinary professor Hernan Montilla, who has volunteered on Ometepe every year since. “He expanded the rural and large animal portions of the trip,” says Beechler. “His commitment has helped the success of the trip greatly.”
Initially, the service trip was supported primarily by students, with some supplies donated by local clinics and a few companies. “It was a lot of hard work by our participants to talk to people they know and get donations,” says Beechler. Now, the student chapter of the International Veterinary Students Association organizes several fund-raising initiatives, but students still hustle up donations and pay their own travel costs.
With an interest in one-health medicine and zoonotic disease, Beechler’s focus on Ometepe was working with local doctors, veterinarians and public health officers to improve human health. “The one-health movement says that animal, human and environmental health are inextricably linked,” she says. “For instance, one of the most common parasites in small animals in Nicaragua is hookworm, which can be spread to humans when infective larvae in the soil penetrate the skin. This is easily prevented by wearing shoes, yet very few children do.”
From 2009-2016, Beechler was working on her Ph.D. in South Africa, and doing post-doc work in Africa, but still helped with Ometepe long distance. Now she is an assistant professor in the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine and conducts research that focuses on animal physiology and disease as it relates to conservation or public health. This has allowed her to come full circle and join the IVSA volunteers in Nicaragua once again. “I want to get reinvolved with my new skills gained in South Africa and try to expand the public health portion of the trip,” she says. To that end, she brought along Bethany Hagen, an OSU graduate student in public health. Hagen conducted surveys of Ometepe community members, doctors and public health officers, and they hope to use the results to create a more one-health-focused link to the people.
They also met with a new veterinarian on the island. “We discussed ways in which we could work together to improve veterinary care and public health in Merida and surrounding areas,” says Beechler. “We decided on two courses of action: assisting him with training support, and creating a lab/office space so that one-health research can be conducted.”
As a founding ‘mother’ of the OSU service trip to Ometepe, Beechler really enjoyed being back on the island. “What I find most rewarding about the trip is seeing the same community members over and over again, and knowing that they trust us. One person informed us that he had been coming to our clinic for ten years with the same dog for annual care. This demonstrates how good a job the students do at working with the local people, building trust. That trust allows us to develop health-related projects.”
“I also really enjoy watching the students learn and develop into veterinarians. The trip does an excellent job of making our veterinary students feel empowered, and develop clinical skills and learn to work with clients. You can see on day one that many are nervous, that doing physical exams and making treatment plans is hard for them. But by day three or four they are much more confident. This growth is very rewarding to see.”