Suitcase recovery station in the free clinic in Falconiana, Costa Rica.

When protests against the Ortega dictatorship in Nicaragua turned violent in April, OSU members of the International Veterinary Student Association met with Dean Tornquist to discuss whether to go forward with the annual service trip to Nicaragua. The group decided it was not safe and, with much regret, the trip was cancelled; but veterinary students would not be where they are without grit and determination, and Kelly Riper (Class of 2020) decided not to give up yet. She enlisted the help of Assistant Professor Brianna Beechler to try to find an alternate location.

Dr. Beechler has done a lot of public health research in third world countries; she used her contacts in Costa Rica to search for a community that did not have access to veterinary care, and could house a portable clinic and thirty volunteers. In June, she and Costa Rican veterinarian Dr. Andres Rodriguez found two tiny villages near Palo Verde National Park that fit those parameters. Riper began planning the trip, but immediately realized she had a big problem: “It was right after finals week and everyone had scattered across the country,” she says. “They had either gone home, or were working for the summer.”

Eventually Riper managed to round up seventeen OSU veterinary students, a large animal surgeon, three students from Tuskegee University, and two Oregon veterinarians. It was just barely enough to staff a clinic.

For ten years, the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine has been holding free clinics in the same location in Nicaragua, so they had a well-defined plan for logistics, and a book of instructions for the next year’s group of volunteers. This time Riper and her team were flying blind.

“We weren’t able to scope out the site, or meet any of the people, so we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know if we were going to see ten animals or 400,” she says. “It was also really challenging to take over planning so late in the game, especially since I had not gone before. I was trying to make sure that all the pieces that normally exist would be there this year too.”

Another hurdle for Riper: Most of the volunteers had plane tickets for Nicaragua that had to be changed, and many of the airlines did not fly to an airport near Palo Verde National Park. She was able to solve that problem too. “We rented two 12-passenger vans and drove them all the way across the country – a four-hour drive,” says Riper. “I was really proud of our students for stepping up to drive on poor roads in a foreign country.”

And you thought your college roommate was bad.

Once they arrived at their destination, the accommodations were more primitive than in Nicaragua, and had existing ‘tenants’. “We had three rooms with five bunk-beds each,” says Riper. “On our first night, we had to clear out all the bugs, scorpions and tarantulas. Some of us really had to face our fear of bugs in a hurry.”

The OSU group held three days of free clinics in two different villages. “They were so small, you can’t even find them on Google maps,” says Riper. “They gave us the elementary school classrooms that they use every day; they moved the kids to the cafeteria while we were there.”

In Nicaragua, OSU had tables, chairs and other equipment stored on site. This year, they had to wing it. Although the diagnostic and surgery stations were in rooms with tables, the recovery station was set up in suitcases on the floor, and the scrub station was outside at a cement sink. Carlson College Dean Susan Tornquist ran the centrifuge and microscope, doing pre-surgery bloodwork.

In these reduced circumstances, with a small team, OSU was still able to spay or neuter 104 animals. “We had two surgery tables running side by side the whole time,” says Riper. “We were very lucky to have Dr. Brad Pope, who owns a practice in Astoria, along with us. We could not have done it without him. He was constantly scrubbing, changing gloves, and jumping into the next surgery. Then someone would need him outside in the wellness clinic. He worked so hard, he deserves a medal; and he was so patient and such a good teacher.”

Many people in the villages near Palo Verde are subsistence farmers, some of whom supplement their income by guiding tourists. None of them can afford even basic veterinary care, so they travelled far, and lined up early for the OSU team.

“They came in every kind of transportation,” says Riper. “One person hooked a trailer to a truck and loaded up a whole bunch of pets. Some people rode in on a horse with their dog running alongside. They would come early in the morning, and some waited all day for their animals to be seen. No one was impatient or hurrying us along; they were so grateful to have us there.”

That made all the hard work worth it. “It was a great feeling to be able provide veterinary care to people who don’t have access otherwise. They were so happy to see us, and when we left, they were begging us to come back next year.”

Thank you to Bayer for donating a few months of flea and tick prevention to every client in Costa Rica. Thank you to PowerFloat for donating equine dental equipment. Thank you to the veterinary clinics around the state who donated supplies. Thank you to Lily Jolles for being a great translator. Thank you to CVT Emily Nichols for teaching us to intubate and monitor anesthesia. Thank you to Dr. Jennifer Warnock for donating her time to a spay/neuter seminar and a suture lab.

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