Veterinary nurse Anne Swarbrick from Oundle and Thrapston Veterinary Surgery (part of the St Frances Group) recently joined us in Malawi and recounts some of her experiences in her blog!
No one was more surprised than me to hear my plan for travelling to Africa spoken aloud for the first time, but such was the enthusiasm of partners Natalie Sampson and Nick Park that, once the (proverbial) cat was out of the bag, there really was no going back! In fact, so keen were they for me to go, they even offered to pay. I’m calling it CPD!
My interest was piqued after coming across a webpage already open at work. The mission of WVS means there are volunteer opportunities for veterinary professionals and non-veterinary people in many destinations across the world, some more challenging than others. I knew that I would be looking for something that would test me personally as well as utilise my professional skills so I chose a project that specifically invited applications from experienced vets and nurses who would be comfortable working under pressure in field situations with limited resources (i.e. no running water or electricity.)
Malawi is a poor country, and whilst many people own a dog, the majority of them do not have access to veterinary care. The dogs are able to wander and mate freely, spreading disease and often leading to fighting and injury, amongst males especially. It is also a rabies-endemic country with a high incidence of childhood deaths. The project I chose to join was the annual neutering and vaccination programme in Malawi which brings together volunteer teams from WVS and Mission Rabies, together with local Malawian staff. The project is proving incredibly successful and has achieved a record >70% vaccination coverage in the local dog population since its inception in 2015. This is a massive achievement and the most successful attempt ever at eliminating the disease from this region of Malawi. The WVS neutering programme and free veterinary care is based at the Blantyre SPCA and is helping to create a healthier and stable local dog population, a vital part of sustaining that high vaccination status.
Initial telephone contact with the team at WVS was followed up with supporting documentation (CV and references) and then a trickle of evidential paperwork to show that I was ready to travel. Then I was on my way! A couple of weeks before departure the volunteers were contacted by Dr Dagmar Mayer (WVS Malawi Country Manager) who sent us the anaesthesia and field surgery protocols and explained the structure of the working week. Our week would run from Saturday to Wednesday, with Thursday and Friday to become the weekend. Fieldwork for this project almost always requires access to a local school building so availability for work on Saturdays and Sundays is a must. The remaining three days would be spent at the Blantyre SPCA where we would continue the neutering programme as well as treat anything emergencies that came along. Working alongside us and at other pre-arranged sites throughout Blantyre and beyond would be our colleagues from Mission Rabies.
My Journey started on April 18th 2018. Leaving Heathrow and flying through the night to South Africa we arrived in time to catch the sun rise as we flew into Johannesburg. A few hours later I was in Malawi. Wow! Even the view from the airport is breathtaking.
At Chileka airport I met up with some volunteers from Mission Rabies and from here we were collected and transported to our destinations. Arriving on a Thursday meant that we were able to spend the next day relaxing as we waited to be joined by more volunteers. With the arrival of veterinary surgeons Eleni, Lorna and Asta, the WVS team was complete and early Saturday morning we departed to our first field clinic, a small village at the edge of Blantyre district. Once outside the city the roads quickly became rough dirt tracks, and there are little or no amenities.
Villagers were already gathering with their dogs and we set to work immediately. With an experienced team of local Malawian assistants, we soon had a prep area and theatre, and our first patients had been vaccinated, weighed, pre-medicated, catheterised and prepped.
Surgery was quick and efficient, but a high percentage of the dogs were underweight and burdened with parasites, increasing the anaesthetic risk. Anaesthesia was injectable only, with incremental top-ups. All dogs received i/v fluids, pain relief and Ivermectin. Those infected with TVT’s would be treated with Vincrisitne (repeated if necessary but often a single dose is sufficient to treat this fairly common transmissible cancer). With the aim being to neuter as many dogs as possible in the time we were there, everyone worked tirelessly. Our record for a single day was 57!! Once recovered from the surgery, these dogs could look forward to healthier and happier lives.
At the end of each field day we would pack up our vehicles and make sure the school was left as we had found it. Back at the BSPCA we unpacked, washed and sterilised kits, topped up essentials and reloaded the vehicles for the next day. We would also check the in-patients undergoing care at the BSPCA. Then it was time for dinner and a beer or Malawian G&T.
On the days that we remained and worked at the BSPCA the pace was a little more relaxed, although there was still lots to do. Our team would be out everyday collecting more dogs by arrangement and bringing them in for neutering. Then there were ongoing cases; bite wounds, lumpectomies, eye enucleations, and one or two poorly puppies that had been picked up from our field clinics. The staff at the centre were amazing and many of them were skilful at much of the routine stuff, handling the dogs, placing catheters etc., helping us in any way they could, and (somehow) remembering where and when to collect and return people’s dogs.
But it wasn’t all work; we were really well looked after during our stay in Malawi. Dagmar, Jo and Ellie took great care to make sure that we had opportunities to see some of Blantyre city and the countryside beyond. We had a wonderful, unforgettable safari experience, we went shopping in the local market, and dined out more than once.
On my last day Dagmar and Asta encouraged, threatened and cagouled me all the way to the top of Mount Michiru (1500m) where we enjoyed the most incredible views across Blantyre and towards Mozambique, for which I will be always grateful. It was a truly beautiful sight.
Volunteering with WVS has been a wonderful experience for me and I would definitely recommend it. It has been a few weeks now since my return and I have found a sort of creeping sense of achievement that comes with distance and time. It is odd travelling to a country where everything is new and strange, working alongside people one doesn’t know and yet carrying out extraordinarily familiar, everyday tasks. It takes time to process but in answer to the question “Would you do it again?” Yes, I would! It is beginning to feel as though it is only by returning that one can really complete the experience and appreciate it for the incredible opportunity it was.
My advice to all vets and vet nurses out there would be, if your contract includes a CPD budget consider using it to fund a volunteer opportunity. It is so worthwhile and a fantastic way of broadening one’s professional experience.
(In memory of Tom Swarbrick. Thanks for the fabulous binoculars. x)