Anna Catherine Bowden '14

Anna Catherine Bowden is a biology major from Easley, S.C. She used her Johnson Opportunity Grant to work with the World Vets Project in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

I got out of bed at 6:00 a.m., even though the particularly full-voiced rooster outside our house had awakened me at 5:30. It was already hot and muggy in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. After a quick breakfast of rice and beans, plantains and eggs, all fifteen team members piled into a truck for the 20-minute drive into the heart of the city. Half of the drive was spent bumping over the rutted dirt roads leading to the community center of San Juan del Sur. The first half of our week-long project had been spent in the countryside, but now we were focusing on treating city animals. The community center was a solid cement structure without clean running water or electricity, and our "surgery suite" consisted of a row of plastic tables flanked by pre-op and post-op areas. No electricity meant no fans to cool the space, and as the sun rose through the liquid air, the heat intensified. We had to work with donated supplies and conditions, meaning the work spaces were less than ideal for surgery, and with our limited and varying supplies, creativity was often required to cobble together a solution.

As I looked out of the dim room into the blazing sunlight, I saw dozens of people holding cats and leading dogs. The scene was a cacophony of barking, mewing and excited voices raised in conversation. Children were running everywhere, followed by puppies tumbling over each other. It was humbling to see the dedication of these people to their pets. They traveled from all over the region and patiently waited hours for their pets to receive care. The majority of Nicaraguan dogs and cats will go their whole lives without needed healthcare due to expense and limited access. World Vets gave free surgeries, consultations and medications to every animal the owners brought.

I was stationed in pre-op for the project. My three-member group estimated the weight and assessed the condition of the animal, sedated them and administered and monitored anesthetic when needed. Most of the dogs had never before been on a leash, never been indoors, and certainly never been examined or sedated. They were often scared and unruly, making our job interesting! In one particularly memorable case, I had to sedate a hulking 65-pound pit bull mix with an intramuscular injection into the thigh. The dog started to growl as we approached. As the vet helping us restrained the dog, the ‘patient' let out a particularly menacing grumble of protest. The vet turned to me and said, "You better be fast!"

We saw an incredible variety of cases: everything from a routine spay to an ear amputation to TVT (transmissible venereal tumors, a particularly nasty disease and one that is uniquely tropical). Many of the animals were malnourished, and all of them were covered in fleas and ticks, leaving them anemic. In fact, fleas were so prevalent that after every day of clinic work I had a ring of red flea bites circling my ankles. We also had a surprising range of ages. We saw puppies and kittens just a few weeks old as well as ancient pets. One day we saw no less than seven puppies in a row.

As the day began to wane, the fading light made work more difficult. Because the center had no electricity, we had to work by headlamps and flashlights. We often worked late into the evening. Since dusk occurred quite early (around 6:00 p.m.), by the time we finished around 8:00, the world outside the center had been reduced to an inky black and the beams of our headlamps were the only illumination available. We finished the final surgery (a cat spay), got the animals in post-op awake and safely to their owners, and exhaustedly climbed into the van to return to our house, Casa Blu.

Although the days were long, stressful and incredibly busy, I found myself looking forward to the next day as eagerly as though it were the first. It was such a wonderful gift to provide services to these animals. Even something as simple as ridding them of fleas and ticks made a difference, and it was satisfying to treat pets who otherwise might not have been able to receive healthcare. It was also touching to see the deep affection the owners shared with their pets. One little girl in particular captured my attention as she dubiously handed me her brindle puppy for sedation and surgery. With my broken Spanish, I could only tell her that her puppy was beautiful and that it would be ok. The girl sat solemnly while her precious pet was in surgery and never said a word. As I brought the groggy dog back out from post-op, her whole face lit up and she let out an explosion of relieved and excited Spanish as she carefully cradled the puppy. I watched her walk away and thought, not for the first time, that moments such as these made all the dirt, fleas and stress worthwhile. Moments such as these made me look forward to the next day of veterinary medicine.