Turning a Classroom into an Operating Theatre: Volunteering with WVS Malawi

You are here

Turning a Classroom into an Operating Theatre: Volunteering with WVS Malawi

Thu 24th May 2018

Asta Parker has been a long-term supporter of WVS, having volunteered on many of our projects helping animals all over the world as well as plenty of epic fundraising challenges to support our work. This year, she joined us as a volunteer vet in rural Blantyre, Malawi, assisting with our animal birth control programme and outreach clinics in the community!

I spent a month at the BSPCA at the height of the Blantyre Mission Rabies vaccination drive alongside two other batches of WVS veterinary volunteers. I have volunteered previously on various WVS projects in Asia, but this was my first foray into Africa.

Blantyre is a fascinating melting pot and the BSPCA is in the thick of it, situated as it is just behind a main bus station and extending its reach into all the local communities. On our days off we were able to explore further afield: hike in the mountains surrounding Blantyre, visit beautiful Lake Malawi and go on safari at the incredible Majete Reserve. 

The BSPCA is impressive for a charity-run clinic in such an impoverished country, but diagnostic and treatment options are understandably limited compared to western standards. There is an old portable ultrasound and radiographs can be taken but not developed; for that the films have to go to a local hospital and the charge for that is often not affordable to the owner. Solar power provides basic back-up when mains electricity is cut off for entire days, but is not able to power the autoclave or washing machine. The water is regularly cut also, at which point you have to rely on stockpiled bucketfulls. This pushes you to go back to basic principles and what would lead to mass cancellation of all non-urgent procedures elsewhere is just another normal day to the dedicated team at the BSPCA. 

Weekends involved a 5.30am start, packing everything into a pick-up to head out to local schools for the outreach neutering programme which ran alongside the Mission Rabies drive. Those days were incredible, with long lines of kids outside the classroom patiently waiting for us to call their dog in for surgery. We would arrive with the new Mission Rabies song blasting from the car stereo, do a whirlwind transformation of the basic classroom into an operating theatre and then neuter as many dogs (and occasional cat) as our ability to maintain good protocol and daylight permitted. Hordes of kids would clamber up into the windows and watch our every move. Dogs with TVTs (cancerous forms of transmissible venereal tumour) received treatment there, but more complex cases went back to the BSPCA clinic. We averaged well over 40 surgeries a day, which for a stripped down set-up with just a couple of vets and nurses justified our nickname of Neutering Ninjas (maybe in part thanks to the WVS black scrubs).

The outreach clinics could only be run at the weekends when classrooms were not in use, so during the week we were based at the BSPCA. We caught up with cleaning and sterilising equipment, neutered more dogs brought in from lists compiled during the outreach and dealt with walk-in patients. My favourite was a little dog called Job (aka Leg) who was badly mauled by larger dogs. Initially he was a cowering wreck and it looked like we might have to amputate his right hind leg. I was thrilled to be able to return a very bouncy Job to his owner with all four legs fully functioning later in the month.

My sincere thanks to WVS Africa Veterinary Manager Dagmar and the amazing BSPCA team for a fantastic few weeks. I wish I could have stayed longer and hope I’ll get a chance to return in the future. 

If, like Asta, you're interested in volunteering your skills and adapting them to the often challenging environments of rural Malawi, join us! We have volunteering placements available in July and August for vets and vet nurses! More dates to be added soon.