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Vet Gazette

Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine eNewsletter

Service Trip to Nicaragua A Tough But Rewarding Experience For Sarah Harmon

November 4th, 2014

Sarah Harmon, after completing a neuter surgery
at the free clinic in Ometepe, Nicaragua.

 

The IVSA’s annual service trip to Nicaragua kicked Sarah Harmon’s butt. Her initial blog post about the trip reads, “First day of clinics was hard, hot, rewarding and sad.” But she still wants to go back.

Although Ometepe is a tropical jewel in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, it is largely undeveloped and very poor. The people there rely on their animals for food, work and transportation, yet there is no veterinary hospital on the island and many of the domestic animals suffer from disease and malnutrition.

That’s why, every fall for eight years in a row, a dedicated group of volunteers from the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, with assistance from the International Veterinary Student Association, have set up a free clinic on Ometepe.

With no major town on the island, people live in small, scattered villages. In one of those villages, down a cratered, dirt road, the OSU team set up a makeshift clinic on the cracked concrete floor of an old industrial building. “We called it the barn,” says Harmon, “but it really wasn’t a barn. It looked like they built boats there. It had a lot of cranes and lifts.”

The hard, physical labor of setting up a clinic began with unloading surgery tables stored by the IVSA from previous visits. The team repurposed old, rickety picnic tables left in the barn as intake desks and microscope stations. Then equipment and supplies were unloaded, and they started getting organized. “We set up stations based on how the animals would move through the clinic: diagnostics was followed by induction, and then by surgery and recovery so they moved in a circle,” says Harmon. Almost immediately, the patients start arriving. “The clinic is advertised through word of mouth. The people were so happy we were there.”

Because there were fewer volunteers this year than in the past, many clients had a long wait for treatment. “The majority of the people were poor farmers working their land, and they sat there for hours, from morning until night,” says Harmon. “It was amazing.”

This year the clinic treated a lot of horses and pigs. One of Harmon’s biggest challenges was understanding and accepting the local attitude toward these animals. “We had this young pig that had a broken leg. The cost of that pig to the family was huge, it’s their food. We had to stabilize him, give him meds, and send him home. That was hard for me; here in America we would have euthanized him. But you have to accept that they need these animals to survive.”

Horses coming to the clinic had a wide variety of clinical issues, many stemming from environmental conditions. Because horses are not native to Ometepe, grass on the island doesn’t supply the right nutrients, and horses are exercised only when needed for hard work. “There is a lot of malnurishment,” says Harmon, “and on top of that, they are workers. We saw a lot of musculoskeletal injuries” says Harmon. “We saw one horse that had a previous fracture that had calloused over. I couldn’t believe it: the joint was this crazy callous and the horse was still getting around. Again, they don’t let you euthanize them. It was so different then how we deal with animals in America”

Harmon also found the social class distinctions on the island troubling. “I got the impression that the people who own property kind of run things. Most of the people work for just a couple of land owners who have the money. We had these amazing translators who worked all day long; they were supplied by the owner of the hacienda. They work for the hacienda for no money, but he sends them to school to learn English, to help build tourism.”

The other landowner in the area was a woman who ran a general store out of her house. “She seemed like a boss too,” says Harmon. “She brought nine pigs [to the clinic], some of them surgery, and she was extremely demanding. She is getting this care for free, and she yelled at us because we didn’t take her animals first. That’s after she charged us $23 for a few old towels, and I had to talk her down from $35.”

Dr. Hernan Montilla, a theriogenologist in the OSU large animal hospital, has been to Ometepe many times, and one of his main goals is to educate the community. “A lot of the farmer’s said ‘We want vitamin injections,’ says Harmon. “Dr. Montilla wanted us to explain that the animals have to get their vitamins through food. So we alked a lot about what they are currently being fed and what they need to eat. We tried to explain the long-term benefits and talk them out of temporary fixes. That was hard because they are just trying to feed their children.”

Despite all the physical challenges and cultural hurdles, Harmon has many positive memories of the trip. “The surgery and anesthesia experience were the biggest assets for me,” she says. “I did several neuters and some spays. Going into my third year, this surgery experience was really valuable.

She also got a lot of diagnostic experience: “I ran PCVs, looking for ehrlichia and other bugs through a microscope. It really nailed-in first and second year for me.”

Many CVM students have little or no experience with large animals prior to veterinary college. This can make their first hands-on large animal class very intimidating. Harmon got a fast introduction in Nicaragua. “I grew up with horses, but did not have a lot of experience with cattle and pigs, so this threw me into it. I learned how to deal with a screaming pig while I castrated it; it was hard to get used to that noise they make.”

Fortunately, after a long hot day in the clinic, the volunteers could walk straight down to lake Nicaragua and jump in. Harmon really appreciated the beauty of the setting. “Sunsets were amazing,” she says. “I’ve travelled around Nicaragua and no sunsets were like those on Ometepe. The clinic was on the southwestern side of the lake so we watched the sun go down over the rest of Nicaragua. It was beautiful.”

Harmon knows that the medical experience she gained in Ometepe will make her a better veterinarian, but she also values the non-medical lessons learned. “I knew I had the drive to do International relief work and this gave me more drive, but it also made me realize that I have to get a little tougher. I wanted to bring every child and every animal home with me. I have to get over that.”

The experience also gave her a better understanding of other cultures. “Sometimes I get all ‘It should be this way; this is what they taught us in school!’ but Nicaragua helped me go ‘Well, it’s really not this way everywhere.’ Dr. Montilla really helped me understand how different other countries are.

As veterinary college gets progressively harder, Harmon may not have time to return to Ometepe for a few years, but she definitely wants to go back. “I want to do this again as a vet. I can’t do it as a student because I need to get other kinds of externship experience, but I want to go back as a vet, and I want to go back with our IVSA.”

 

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