Volunteer Spotlight: An Irish Vet's Adventure to Malawi

Volunteer Spotlight: An Irish Vet's Adventure to Malawi

Wherever we operate in the world, we are joined by awesome volunteers – everyone from vets-in-training to trained veterinary nurses to people with just a passion for animal welfare. Volunteers like Dr Jack Phelan, a veterinarian from Ireland, generously travelled to Malawi to lend a hand with our team at the BSPCA Blantyre for five weeks.

Read on to hear all about his volunteering experience in southeastern Africa.

Why did you decide to volunteer abroad?

"For me, volunteering abroad had been on my mind for quite some time; as a student and during my first few years in practice. I had always admired people that had done it and loved their stories."

"In my career to date, I have always taken great satisfaction from work carried out for charities and underprivileged pets. However, between studies and new grad life, it had never seemed like the right time!"

"Thankfully, in 2021, I asked my employer for a couple of months off to go volunteering, and they were more than happy to oblige. I was also encouraged by a veterinary nurse friend of mine, “Jenny”. Who had been on a trip with the WVS to India before."

Why did you choose to go to Malawi?

"For me, the BSPCA and Malawi was always my first choice as a location. A local priest in my school as a child used to tell stories about his trips to Malawi, and it's famously friendly and warm people."

"While further researching the country, I came across the movie 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind', which I really recommend."

What did your day-to-day involve?

"0700; Rise and Shine. It used to get bright very early, so getting up was very easy :)"

"0730-0830; A short walk to the clinic for morning rounds with the team, and a quick discussion on our inpatients (typically10-15 cats and dogs). We would then clean out the kennels and cages and administer the morning medications, before updating all the relevant hospital sheets."

"0830-1230; The morning would either involve consultations for local dogs, or surgical procedures."

"1230-1330; Lunch. Each Wednesday we would have lunch and learn where one of the team one present on a topic of their choice. A Malawian lunch typically consists of the maize stable 'nsima' and a tasty sauce."

"1330-1600; Further consultations, and hospital patient care."

"1600-2000; Chilling out in the volunteer apartment with my Malawian colleagues. Sometimes we played the African board game Bao or watched a movie. If any patients needed evening mediations, we would pop into the clinic around 1900."

"That being said, no two days were the same. On a given day I may have been asked to go and assist Dr. Dagmar and practice manager Rachel at Majete Wildlife park to anaesthetise some cheetahs, or to head up towards Lake Malawi to set up for a weekend neutering/outreach clinic."

"I particularly enjoyed living with and helping my two Malawian vet colleagues who had just graduated while I was there, Matthew and Timothy. We would discuss cases, and I would help them surgically on the days when it was less busy. The progress they made over my six weeks in Malawi was fantastic to see, they were growing in confidence day by day."

"The surgical and medical cases were varied and interesting. As well as a high volume of neutering procedures, I also got to perform multiple amputations and femoral head and neck ostectomies amongst other things. The facilities at the BSPCA are fantastic and a great asset to the animals of Blantyre. There is a digital x-ray, a haematlogy machine, and gas anaesthesia available when needed."

What did you do on your days off?

"At the weekends, there was nearly always something going on. One weekend, we headed up to Lake Malawi and performed a neutering clinic, followed by a couple of days relaxing by the lake. Another couple of weekends were spent down in Majete Wildlife Park. An incredible recently rehabilitated wildlife haven in the Chikwawa region."

"Here we tracked wild cheetahs and lions, and spent one night sleeping out in the bush. It was a fantastic experience. The birdlife was amazing. My favourite being the colourful 'bee-eater' bird."

"I also had the opportunity to travel to the mountainous Mulanje region south of Blantyre, which is beautiful, and home to Malawi's highest peak; Sapitwa."

Did you have a favourite patient?

"There were lots of memorable patients on this trip. The local village dogs are fantastic to treat, and it is amazing watching them come out of their shell once they get to know you. There is also great satisfaction in helping malnourished dogs with severe mange/parasite burdens transform into healthy, outgoing little dogs."

"One dog “Jack” was one such puppy, who also had a badly infected stump where his owners had tried to amputate his tail. We treated his mange and amputated the infected tail amputation site, and I am told he is doing great."

What was the biggest takeaway from your experience?

"I did feel very privileged, landing back into pre-Christmas Europe after my time spent in Malawi. Life is incredibly difficult for people there, but they have such a positive and warm attitude that we should learn so much from them. Their love for animals is clear to see, and will often go as far as feeding their own pets to the detriment of their own nutrition."

"Malawians, their animals, and their wildlife are on the front-line of climate change despite having hardly contributed to it at all, they deserve our support in every way in the years ahead to help develop a sustainable climate-friendly economy, ensure food security, and protect their incredible wildlife."

What was the impact of COVID-19 on your trip?

"Covid-19 did add a degree of difficulty to the organising of the trip. Arrival and pre-departure PCR tests were required in Malawi, but the team at the BSPCA had lots of connections with the local health authorities and knew exactly where to go for the pre-departure test, so this was not too much hassle."

"Omicron started to become an issue just before my departure, but thankfully I had returned home before further hotel quarantine rules for certain African countries were introduced."

"Due to the reduced number of volunteers at the BSPCA, there were no large outreach neutering programmes organised during my time there, which often there would be when volunteers are present. I was actually the first volunteer at the BSPCA for quite a while, so I was glad to be able to help out and give Dr. Dagmar and Rachel a bit of a break from the clinical work during my time there."

Do you have any advice for others wishing to participate in a similar programme?

"There is no time like the present! It will be a fantastic experience, and I'm sure most employers are more than happy to facilitate the trip. You certainly won't regret it, will make some great memories, meet some brilliant people and help lots of animals."

Become a volunteer like Jack

If you’ve been inspired by Jack’s experience and feel ready to get hands-on with helping animals in need in Malawi, take a look at our volunteer placements at BSPCA or our other programmes for vets, nurses, students, and non-vets around the world.

Frequently Asked Questions

Got questions about volunteering abroad? How do I apply? It is for me? Is it even possible with COVID-19 becoming a part of our daily lives? We have got the answers to your most frequently asked questions.

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