March is Women’s History Month, if you didn’t know. I work in a strange profession, one that has changed quite solidly in demographics from its original incarnation to its current status, graduating classes of row after row of- well, men, mostly- now replaced, to an 80% extent, by women. I spend a lot of time talking about veterinary medicine, and I would say about 80% of the time I am talking about it with women (who’d have guessed?)
Does the changing demographic matter? Yes and no. I may be a little prejudiced here myself, but I think women are pretty badass and are doing a bangup job in veterinary medicine. Like their male counterparts, they’re practice owners, associates, specialists, leaders, and, you know, individual people with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Whenever I mention the idea of exploring that concept and what it had meant for the field, editors all run screaming. You can’t, they say. It’s too controversial. There have been some attempts, like this one from Dr. Don Smith at Cornell, but the conversation is by and large stagnant. Fortunately for me, I have no major sponsors to frighten here in my own little corner of the net, so let’s just go ahead and go there, shall we? It’s not like no one is talking about it, just not out loud.
So we’ve all heard of Lean In, right? Sheryl Sandberg’s go get ‘em tome extolling women to jump on in and take the bull by the horns? Yes, that was very nice, and excellent advice for a particular target group who want to be Sheryl Sandbergs. All you gunners out there- you know who you are- read and take note. And for the rest of us, who maybe want a break from running at full throttle at career advancement for a little while in order to live life?
Who said I hated her? I just have a different definition of success. Stop making us snipe at each other for goodness’ sake.
I’m here to tell you that it’ll be OK. And guess what I’m going to do? I’m going to use math, because I’m a woman who loves math AS WELL AS SHOES, and I also think more women should be saying out loud that you can like both. I write my own rules. You, by the way, should as well.
1. Logistical Growth Curve: Up, Up and Away
Let’s start with the typical career trajectory, as defined by the Sandbergs of the world, like a logistical growth curve:
Except instead of population growth, imagine perhaps income, or accolades, or whatever you want. Point is, you start slow, gain some momentum, then go out on top- ever moving upwards.
And in all the talk about women in the workplace, the one elephant in the room is always this: women sometimes choose to have babies. As do men, albeit in a less direct manner. And women sometimes want to take some time to stay home with their children. (Men do too, yes, but when we’re looking at a general trend here, I’m stretching to think of a single male veterinarian who left the field to be a stay at home dad.)
And in honor of Women’s History month, I am going to commit to words the experience I had, that my friends and I have all spoken about in hushed tones and felt we couldn’t discuss out loud because controversy and all. This was my experience. YMMV.
From the moment I set foot on campus, motherhood was presented in a subtle but unmistakable light as an either/or phenomenon when it came to veterinary medicine. Either you went all in or you went home. Women who took a year off to have a baby got eyebrow raises and sighs of “too bad she took the spot from someone who really wanted it,” as if pregnancy opened up a small but permanent hole in one’s brain through which all your knowledge dripped out, bit by bit, until all you were capable of is popping pacifiers in mouths and talking about Robeez. If you really wanted to be a vet, you would have not chosen to have a kid- especially in school.
This doesn’t end outside of school. I’ve been asked in interviews if I was pregnant (thanks for that, carb bloat I guess?) or planning to become pregnant, which is as illegal as you are thinking it is. I’m glad the guy asked it though, so that I knew where he stood on the topic. I’ve sat in meetings, 7 months pregnant and bloated from 12 hour emergency shifts, while the medical director’s best piece of advice to the interns was, “motherhood and medicine don’t mix. Mothers are terrible vets.” I’ve heard of a person who fired their veterinarian for having two maternity leaves, because she is ‘clearly not committed,’ because she wouldn’t give him her cell phone number while she was out on leave. The nerve.
So what’s the message here to women who want to have a family? If you want to be a good vet, you come back to work two weeks later and find a good nanny. By the way, I completely support any woman who wants to do this. The key word here, though, is “want.” What about the women who don’t want to do that? Get out. You don’t deserve to be here.
2. Extinction Curve: Down and Out
I’ll ask for a raise of hands- and I’ll be the first to put mine up: who has been told in an interview “I don’t like hiring young women because they always have babies,” as if all women inevitably do this, and those that do should be ashamed of their lack of commitment. Slacker.
Cue the sad trombone. You, my female friends, are now an extinction curve. Even the possibility that you might one day want to do something so egregious as reproduce is enough to keep you from getting hired in some places. I can see how that might make the women who choose not to have kids potentially a little irritated with the women who do. This is really, really counterproductive. But it happens.
The weight of a family is going to drag you right on out of there.
Being the troopers that they are, I’ve seen some amazing women fight tooth and nail to hold on to their professional commitments full bore despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly what they wanted to be doing at the moment, thinking that was their only option. Then they quit, never to be heard from again. They have been told that you are 100% in or you are a failure, and so they left.
And boy is that a shame. Wanting a personal life- whether that means kids, a hobby, a passion outside the field- is not only all right, it’s pretty darn important when it comes to retaining one’s sanity. I’m a big fan of that.
There is a reason we have one of the highest suicide and depression rates among professionals, and part of it is our own doing by having such distaste for those who strive to live a life outside the office. Martyr complexes only get you so far, and it’s become ingrained as part of the definition of what veterinarians do. I promise you this: I am so, so much better at what I do now than I was when I was stressed, overtaxed, and resentful. I am grateful once again to be a veterinarian.
3. Steady State: Fluctuating around a stable baseline
Now: let’s review what really happens out there in the world (no one will tell me my population biology course was a waste of time! Viva la diff eq!) Real life, messy, biological populations that are stable (though not necessarily stationary) enter what’s known as steady state, sometimes up, sometimes down, but maintaining height:
Who doesn’t want stability? Life- and the average vet- is tougher than we give it/her credit for. If populations can bounce back from plagues and droughts surely we can manage to have a kid, or vacation, or a marriage or divorce or whatever distraction that comes with being human without having to panic and toss away an entire career.
When I went back into general practice after two years of emergency medicine punctuated by two pregnancies, I hadn’t done a routine spay in a year and a half. I was freaking out. I was convinced it was as if I possessed virgin hands and somehow I would mess the entire thing up. I stood over the patient, my boss in the next room in case of mass emergency, and guess what? I did it as if I had been doing it just the day before. Muscle memory is an amazing thing, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
You tune out to take care of things and come back better than ever. This is how leaders are born. By cutting out a huge percentage of our field from believing they have what it takes to succeed long term because they want a breather, we’re killing off our future leadership.
When the increasing numbers of women in the human medical field pushed this same sort of reckoning, asking for flexibility and balance, the end result was happier doctors and both women and men who benefitted from it. Maybe you don’t want kids, maybe you want time to pursue hiking the Appalachian trail or to take care of an aging parent or further dominate your field. You deserve that too. The old timers tut-tutting the up and comers when I was in school a decade ago may still be hand wringing and bemoaning the fact that the new generation doesn’t want to work 80 hours with one day of vacation a year, and guess what? They’re right. Nothing wrong with that. Not everyone can or needs to be a Sandberg.
What made sense back then may no longer hold true.
When I was in school, one of my best friends was a woman named Carrie. She is awesome. Like me, we both decided halfway through that we weren’t all that interested in being small animal veterinary practice owners, and by junior year our colleagues were taking bets on who was going to leave the profession first.
We both did, in our own way. But we did it on our own terms, and we both came back, which is more than I can say for some of my really amazing classmates who opted out under the weight of unrealistic expectations. I am a writer, and now, in a strange twist I never anticipated, I’m exploring a new subcategory of medicine in hospice care. Dr. Carrie is- get this- travelling to the world’s hotspots as a public health consultant. She just got back from Peru, Indonesia and Thailand. THAT IS SO COOL.
Obviously trying to cover gender issues in one post is like trying to sum up War and Peace in a paragraph, but someone needs to start the conversation. Success in the veterinary profession the way we define it now stacks the deck against a whole lot of people. So let’s redefine what it means to be a successful veterinarian. Find a steady state. Your steady state.
To all you new grads and my old friends who are all emailing me saying they think they are ready to leave the field, I have this to say: leave if you need to. It’s OK. You can come back, you can. And if you don’t want to that’s ok too. If you want to single mindedly pursue dermatologic domination at an academic institution, you can do that too. This is a really, really cool field, and you are allowed to make your own path through it. You will always be a veterinarian no matter how you occupy your day, and don’t let anyone who chose a different path tell you otherwise.
14K feet up in Africa. Wouldn’t have happened without my DVM.
Stay. We need guides on all the paths up the hill.
I spend a lot of time thinking about customer service, and how we as veterinarians are sometimes so focused on being amazing clinicians we neglect to remember the fact that we are in a customer service industry. You can be the most astute diagnostician in the universe, but if your front desk staff or technician (or you!) is rude, ambivalent or just generally unpleasant, it ruins the whole client experience. It doesn’t take much to be minimally pleasant, but I’m amazed how uncommon that has become.
I’ve always held Disneyland to be the ultimate in the customer service experience. I remember going as a kid and being followed around the park by chipper young men in starched white uniforms, cheerily scooping up the popcorn we were dripping behind us. “Have a magical day!” they’d wink, and we did. The haunted mansion staff got really into being creepy. My friend, who worked there in high school and college, was taken to task for wearing non regulation pink lipstick. The Disneyland Experience was no joke. Yes, we knew it was fake and those cheery people went home and were crabby humans just like everyone else, but we all appreciated the artifice of good cheer.
I know things have changed a bit. Disney has gotten a little more corporate, the college aged employees too stuck in hipster mode to bring themselves to actually act like they’re happy, but I had no idea how bad it had gotten until this past week.
My aunt and uncle were visiting from Massachusetts, and my aunt decided she would like to enjoy Disneyland with my kids- who were on Spring Break. My aunt has MS and uses a wheelchair, which as she reminded me allows you some measure of benefit in the form of getting to enter the rides through the exits, thus a shorter line. The kids were happy to hear this.
Now I know Disneyland and I have had our moments in the past- the Splash Mountain debacle, for one, and a heartbreaking encounter with an accordion playing D-list celebrity I used to be a fan of, but still, I figured how could they screw this one up? All you have to do is make some reasonable accommodation for a disabled guest, blah blah Magic of Disney etc, right?
Yeah. It seems somewhere along the way they have forgotten some of Business Tactics 101, applicable to any place hoping to retain customers, be it your friendly local DVM or a once well regarded amusement park.
1. Staff appropriately.
Part of the problem was that we went during spring break, and I know this. That being said, I had to push my aunt hither and fro round each and every ride looking for some guidance as to where one might enter as it seemed like no one was actually working the line. We wandered through Indiana Jones’ exit line for 5 minutes before finding a line of wheelchairs 30 deep marinating in the shadows, staffed by an ambivalent kid in khakis who was not, I suspect, as into archaeology as he should be pretending to be.
2. Anticipate problems.
See someone trying to get through your front door with a huge crate as big as they are? You open the door for them. Same goes for someone trying to back a wheelchair onto a train platform before the door slams shut on someone’s neuropathic feet. Theoretically. It’s the little things, right?
3. Keep track of your clients.
I heard horror stories of a physician going home for the day, leaving an increasingly agitated client in an exam room who never got past the nurse. I think it’s reasonable for the person in charge of traffic flow to be keeping an eye on things to make sure no one gets left behind.
Which brings me to my most egregious Disney misadventure to date.
“Actually, we have 999 happy haunts residing here but, there’s always room for 1000. Any volunteers, hmmm?”
Anyone who has been on the haunted mansion is familiar with the ride itself: you step onto a moving conveyor belt and run into a little whirl-a-gig buggy thing, ride around for a while getting spooked, and then extricate yourself from said buggy back onto a moving platform. All fine and dandy for those without mobility issues, but it gets dicier when you’re moving slowly.
Doom buggy, as apropos a title as any.
I entered the ride first, with my kids. My mother and aunt got on the buggy behind us, after asking the person running the line to slow it down so she could get on. This is SOP in these cases.
On the other end, I got off with the kids and they started up the one way escalator off the ride. I heard my mother behind me, saying, “Stop! STOP!” in louder and louder degrees of panic. Apparently, in a cost cutting measure they got rid of whoever normally stands at the far end to make sure people get off ok, and there was just one girl at the near end of the ride who couldn’t hear my mother yelling as there was a horde of 30 people pushing off past her. None of whom, by the way, seemed alarmed by my mother’s distress.
My children, sensing a disturbance and me pausing at the bottom of the escalator, were valiantly attempting to rush back down to me, only to be pushed up by people telling them not to goof off. I turned and saw only the sad sight of my aunt’s hand hanging out the side, waving sadly to us as she disappeared into a dark tunnel to join the 999 Happy Haunts in parts heretofore unseen.
I went up the escalator after my kids. A few minutes later, my mother appeared, sans aunt.
“Where is she?” I asked.
“They don’t know,” my mother responded, which seemed like a bizarre thing for them to have told her. I mean, she’s on a fixed belt and can’t walk, so one might think she would be easy to find. “They said she’ll probably pop up at the entrance.”
Probably. Else they found their thousandth happy haunt.
I went to the entrance, which is an entirely different area, to see if she might arrive there. No one knew where she was there either. My mother, having exited the turnstyle, couldn’t go back down to the exit to wait for her there. Eventually my aunt texted me: “Going through again.”
She did indeed make it back to the entrance, shocking the hell out of the people about to get in the cart with her. The person there stopped the ride and asked her off, but seeing as though her family and her wheelchair were now at the exit, she demurred. Eventually, she arrived back at the egress and had to pick her way, slowly and gingerly, up to the exit turnstyle where my son was frantically holding on to her chair. I had to explain to my kids why I was laughing so hard while we rolled right on out the park and back to our car, pooped.
“Because your auntie is a cool lady,” I said, marvelling. And she is.
On the bus ride back to the parking lot- which was incidentally the best ride of the day- we were helped by an old-timer named Clarence. “You don’t say,” he said, when we told him of our misadventures. “I’ve never heard that one before. Losing a lady on a ride.” He could barely kneel himself, but he helped me maneuver her chair down the bus ramp.
It’s the little things that stick with us in customer service. But all’s well that ends well; at least we got her back.
“What time does your flight land?”
My husband asks me this every time I go to Nicaragua (OK, it’s only been twice, but still.) He asks because the State Department brief on Nicaragua mentions armed robberies along the highways at night, and he is worried that this will happen to me. And I appreciate his concern, I do, but I sometimes wonder what the State Department would say if it were telling travelers what to do when travelling out of LAX, an airport I lived by for 5 years, or what he would have said had he known I was hopping into a taxi by myself at 1 am in Nairobi, something he didn’t think twice about when I mentioned it after the fact but everyone who has actually BEEN to Nairobi thought was a particularly
gutsy stupid thing to do.
The point is, you take calculated risks all the time in life, and do the best you can to protect yourself, because at the end of the day the coolest things in life require that tiny element of risk. Why did the chicken cross the road and all of that. Despite wanting to be able to talk about my mad danger cred, I have to be honest: not all countries in Central and South America can say the same, but Nicaragua was not a worrisome destination for me. At all.
For those who don’t recall why I am talking about Nicaragua, I was there a few weeks ago as part of the Inaugural Technical Animal Rescue course with World Vets. I didn’t talk about it too much beforehand for the simple fact that I really didn’t know what we were going to be doing, other than ‘learning technical animal rescue’ and that I would need a life preserver, but the element of surprise is what makes these adventures so great. And because I ended the course with a test, you get one too. That’s how we roll here. That’s how you LEARN, people.
True or false: Most travelers to Nicaragua end up robbed, jailed, or otherwise victimized.
The area of Nicaragua we were in (Granada) feels very safe. Violent crime is certainly more rare than it is here in San Diego, and the only assault I had was on my dignity during that awkward massage (but I digress). All that stuff you hear about the terrible Nicaraguan jails on Locked Up Abroad? Told by people who were smuggling drugs. Don’t do that. This place is crawling with tourists, who come with money to spend, and the community doesn’t want to jeopardize that by showing people a bad time.
True or false: Granada is ugly.
Granada is gorgeous. It is one of the oldest cities in the Americas, founded in 1542. That means there are lots of old, old churches;
Strange incongruous city blocks whose architecture depends on what century it was built in and which pirate burned it down;
And walls stretching to the horizon, punctuated by doors that lead into the unknown; could be a pharmacy. Could be a pile of rubble. Or it could be a beautifully manicured courtyard, such as that at Casa la Merced, where we were fortunate enough to stay.
I opened my bedroom door to this every day. Hideous.
True or false: World Vets hired some random bozo to teach the course as a front because we all just wanted to go to Granada.
On the first day of the course, we met our instructor, Kim Little from Rescue 3. The first thing we learned about him is that he has been teaching rescue courses professionally for three decades.
The second thing I learned is that he is teaching us the same material taught to the HSUS Disaster Response team and all the other big players you see on the news when disasters happen domestically. So we learned the real deal, FEMA certified, official course. By the way, if you ever invite Kim over for dinner, which you should, ask him to tell you stories from his rescue work during Hurricane Katrina. There’s a story with a tiger, and another story involving a massive pig, a crate, and a film crew.
And the third thing I learned was:
This is important, as I will get to when I talk about how during lake practice I accidentally demonstrated how one might accidentally kill both oneself and one’s victim during a water rescue, if one forgets this cardinal law.
True or false: Technical Animal Rescue involves the most complicated and expensive elaborate machinery that exists.
After our first day doing classwork, reviewing the hydrodynamics of swift water rescue and me getting to gleefully nerd out on vectors and flow diagrams, we sat down with the meat and potatoes of any rescue team: bags of ropes and carabiners.
It’s amazing what you can do with rope. No, really.
We spent more time doing knots than anything else in this course. Knots, and knots, and more knots. Knots that swivel and knots that pull and knots with two loops and knots that lay flat.
Those who have done climbing fared better than the others, but we all got it eventually. Dr. Augusto Barragan from Panama, seen here with Dr. Lester Tapia from Granada, was particularly adept. He spent a lot of time sitting opposite me trying to explain in his non-native language what I was doing wrong.
Answer: taking too many pictures.
Jen, having quickly mastered the lessons due to her climbing experience, started to freestyle.
Kim had but three precious days to whip this motley bunch of veterinary do-gooders into cool, calm rescue pros who could grab a duffle bag of ropes and clips, look over the edge of a ravine at a dog and human in distress, and figure out how to magically transform those tools into a successful rescue. After that first day of tumbled knots, things were looking grim, but we persevered.
Day One: The newly formed team gathers at the defunct Granada train station, wondering what we had in store.
But did we learn enough? Stay tuned.
To say I am a little stressed right now is an understatement. They say moving is one of the most stressful life events there is, up there with death and divorce in terms of sheer ability to induce cortisol production. Combined with a bunch of other incredibly time consuming commitments I have no business doing without the advantage of a time machine that can give me an additional 10 hours each day, I’ve devolved into a mess who had a handful of Trader Joe Jo Jos and a glass of wine for dinner last night simply because it was all I could find at 10 pm when it finally occurred to me I should eat something.
Point is, I apologize for not writing as frequently as I normally do. It will get better, but not in the next couple of weeks. Unless you want to see posts entitled “Today I sat with my face buried in Brody’s neck and rocked back and forth for three hours” I don’t have a lot to say, because the only thing worse that packing is reading a post about packing.
So instead, I’m going to take a deep breath and rewind to one year ago today, when I posted one of my favorite posts of all times. Oh, to be a carefree vetpanzee once again. Enjoy.
On a quiet afternoon on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, the vetpanzee colony takes a siesta, safely hidden from hungry leopards in their thatch caves.
All, that is, but one. A female, alone, restlessly paging through a vetpanzee favorite, In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall.
Note the concentration she devotes to her task. Vetpanzees are single minded in their pursuit of knowledge, at least sometimes. If they are not distracted by chocolate or puppies.
Unfortunately the click of the shutter annoys the vetpanzee, and with a hoot and a grunt she takes off down the beach. Vetpanzees are solitary creatures and do not like to be disturbed in their repose.
The photographer gives her a moment, then gives chase down a vetpanzee trail. Where did the she run off to?
The watering hole? Empty, at least until the evening congregation hour.
Gone for a swim? Unlikely. Vetpanzees are terrified of crocodiles.
Napping in an old nest? No, vetpanzees prefer new nests every night.
Ah. There, in the distance. A vetpanzee feeding ground. Perhaps she is there.
The other vetpanzees have awoken and are actively searching out food. Our photographer must be careful as he skirts the edges of the feeding ground not to disturb them as it appears the alpha male has made an appearance.
Our photographer spots fresh size 8 flip flop prints leading up into the cave. Upstairs, an alcove has been carved away and filled with the young vetpanzee’s favorite treat: words.
There is also pen and paper. This is promising. Has he found the fleeing vetpanzee?
He has. She is exhibiting classic happy vetpanzee behavior as she cradles another book.
Cornered, the vetpanzee stiffens. What are you reading, vetpanzee? Just let us look.
With a dangerous baring of teeth, the vetpanzee complies:
“Best Practices Guidelines for the Prevention and Mitigation of Conflict Between Humans and Great Apes.” (Vetpanzees are often nerdy.)
One tenet of such conflict prevention, by the way, is do not stalk and photograph the vetpanzee when she is trying to relax.
This is one of my favorite people I met in Granada (there were a lot of them.)
Her name is Maria Elena Solorzano, and she, as well as her sister, are veterinarians in Granada. I suppose a person who owns a clinic in a town could see something like the World Vets Training Center pop up, and say, wow that stinks, and this is going to compete with my work, and this is terrible.
Or you could say, let me help you, because I care about the animals in my town and I want them to have access to more than I am capable of offering by myself. This is Dr. Mari Elena.
She was instrumental in helping the World Vets team access carriage horses and equine farms in the area so each group of students had a full amount of time to get hands-on horse experience. As a resident, she had access and knowledge the team did not to help get the word out about the services World Vets wanted to offer. In addition, when caseload was slow at Casa Lupita in town, she organized dog and cat street clinics on the outskirts of the city.
She was to me, the embodiment of the spirit of people of Nicaragua: caring, hardworking, and determined to do right by those she came by.
Including the multiple pit bulls she has adopted over the years. She told me with no small amount of sadness that dog fighting has become a new popular trend in town, and she has scooped up sweet dogs who weren’t performing up to par and were in danger of being put to death. Yes, even here, this happens.
On our last sunny afternoon in Granada, Dr. Mari Elena joined the team at one such street clinic. It was puppy and kitten day, apparently. Piles of puppies, chubby, well fed, there for preventive care.
And cats like you’ve never seen- mellow cats, hanging stoically from children’s arms as they awaited their fate, looking languidly at their surroundings.
Deworming is never a popular thing.
This cat tolerated everything quite lackadaisically, though I kept my eye on him waiting for the other shoe to drop. After all, there were a whole lot of dogs there too. Every cat has his limit.
And there we have it! The cat makes a break for it in a moment of complacence.
The cat runs across the street and wedges himself under a shed. Dr. Sarah and Dr. Mari Elena are dispatched to assess the situation.
“Please help!” the boy cries. “The dog is going to eat him! PLEASE!” he pleads, as the dog, awakened by the ruckus, raises his head and shrugs.
The cat, saved from the clutches of the geriatric shepherd mix, is safely returned to the boy, thanks to the skills of Dr. Mari Elena.
Though his cat handling skills, I think, could use a little more refining.
It is so lovely to see someone for whom interacting with the community is as natural as breathing. You’d be surprised at how rare it has become. Dr. King and I visited her clinic later that day; for all the work she does and all the people who rely on her, she has all the skills she has learned, but no textbooks. Not a one. I would like to figure out a way to get my books to her, especially the large animal ones, the ones sitting in my garage being of no use to me. She has assured me she could use them.
I remember my first spay out of vet school. It was my third dog spay ever, after two done in junior surgery lab and a couple of rabbit spays during my lab animal rotation. I was alone, my mentor literally and figuratively out to lunch. On the table before me, a ten pound Maltese with pristine white fur and pearlescent skin. The owner had plastered her face to the window leading into the treatment area, craning her neck to try and see into the surgical suite, wide eyes making me no less nervous about the incision I was about to make.
It went fine, but it was slow and the incision was large, two common occurrences with newly minted vets. The owner, apparently expecting a 1 cm horizontal bikini line incision, was furious and complained loudly to my mentor about turning her dog into a Frankenpup. His response was, “Yes, she’s new, that’s why it looks so terrible. You should have had me do it.”
My point here is this: learning surgery is scary, and it helps a whole awful lot to have a supportive mentor to walk you through the early stages. I would have killed for that. Instead, I spent the first year out terrified of surgery and never living up to the unrealistic expectations of someone who, instead of helping me get better, simply persisted in pointing out that I wasn’t as good as he was. (more…)
Your guide knows more than you. Yes, he does.
I think you all know that the volcano series ends with me at the bottom, alive. I just wanted to get that out of the way, though, in case you were worried. For a bit, I was worried too.
When we last checked in on this story, I was gasping for air at 14,960 feet, marveling at the majesty before me and a little delirious with excitement that I had actually made it to the summit of Meru. Margareta, having expended the last of her reserves getting to the top, took a few pictures then quickly started her descent. Few by few, the remaining summiteers, all of whom had reached the top before us, took their leave. Teri and I lingered, along with a group of freshly minted medical school graduates from the UK. Hey, if you’re going to collapse at altitude in Africa, best to do it with a vet and 4 doctors, right?
The adrenaline soon dissipated, we decided in fairly short order that it was time to descend. My brain, having spent the previous six hours focused on sound and the two feet in front of me, was rapidly overwhelmed with the visual input of OMG WHAT THE HECK DID I JUST CLIMB. No one told me we had made it to Mars. (more…)
So I know I didn’t really tell you all a whole lot about the fact that I was going to Nicaragua with World Vets. Trust me, I didn’t know either. It was more of a, “Hey, you want to come down and check this place out?” invitation from Cathy King and as you all know, I never say no to checking out somewhere cool, so I scrambled and got my act together and flew to Granada to check out the World Vets Latin American Veterinary Training Center.
To sum up: World Vets leased a building, turned it into a spay/neuter clinic, and spent the entire summer flying teams of veterinary, pre-vet, and tech students down in 11 day shifts to learn surgery and medicine, one on one, from a group of experienced volunteer vets. During the non-summer months, the facility will remain open as a training center for local Nicaraguan vets, who do not receive any surgical training in school.
Sound easy? It’s not. The amount of work put in by the volunteers and staff is mind boggling. How they pulled this off is beyond me, but they did, and did it well.
Now, I know Cathy is modest, so I figured it would probably be a good setup. What I didn’t expect was to be blown away, and I mean a brow-furrowing jaw-dropping how-did-she-pull-this-off sort of amazed, at what happened in Granada this summer. It’s a trifecta triple win for the veterinary students who received absolutely priceless surgical training they will not get in school, for the Nicaraguan vets who use the center during the non-summer months, and for the people of Granada, who now have access to a free clinic.
Oh, and the animals. The animals benefitted too. I’ll tell you more in a bit about the scope of the project, the names of the tireless staff who kept the show running, and some more about the thousands of animals whose lives were bettered by this project, but today, let me just show you one:
Don is the incredible surgeon who, along with his wife Lisa, spent the entire summer here overseeing the veterinary training. Val is a veterinary student who summered here as an intern, part student, part camp counselor, all awesome. Lucy is the expat who lives full time in Granada, and is one of the clinic managers tasked with the monumental job of keeping the place running.
And Bits? Well, see for yourself.
She’s only 3 1/2 months old. She spent most of an evening curled in my lap, oblivious to her dysfunctional left front leg.
Without the team, she would have died, alone and in pain.
And now she waits for the right home to come along. She is a little too slow to be a good mouser, a bit too clumsy yet to be trusted to escape a fast predator. She’s fine, but she needs someone who will keep her safe while she learns her changed body. Lucy is fostering her until that time.
By themselves, numbers are just scribbles on a page. 1500 spays. 1200 consultations. Alone, they signify nothing except magnitude. But here, here is just one. And one by one, this volunteer team assembled the bits and pieces of individual lives helped, a tapestry of color and kisses and nuzzles that in the short course of three months, made this training center an indispensable part of the community here in Granada. By the time they left, Val and her fellow intern Shawn couldn’t walk down the street without a friendly “Hola!” and an excited resident giving them an update on a pet World Vets has helped.
One bit and piece.
I suppose I should actually finish off this series since at least two people have mentioned that they thought it was interesting, and two is good enough for me. I know those two people are on the edges of their seats dying to know if I actually made it to the top of Mt. Meru.
So when I left off, it was about eight pm on our second day, and Julius was fretting that we weren’t eating enough. I should have known this would be an important clue about what was to come, since he really was ambivalent about our eating habits up until this meal. As it would turn out, when you get up at midnight, you get coffee, a couple shortbread cookies, and that is it until you get back down the mountain. So this was quite literally our last full meal for the next 16 hours. Had I really thought that through, I would eaten more.
“Make sure you have three liters of water,” he said, and I kind of nodded. 2, 3, close enough. My head was hurting and I didn’t feel like drinking that much. I know, stupid. Headaches are a sign of not only dehydration, but of altitude sickness, and one exacerbates the other. And I made both worse by nursing my Camelbak.
So before I knew it, midnight hit and our cook was gently tapping on the door. We rolled out of our bunk beds and pulled on layer upon layer of clothing- thermal underwear, sock liners, socks, fleece, down jacket, neck warmer, waterproof pants, windproof shell, gloves, hat, boots. I felt like the Stay Puf marshmallow vet. I know this will not seem like a big deal to most of you, but 95% of my life is spent in a single layer of a t-shirt and shorts, so wearing 5 complete outfits at once was new to me.
I peeked my head out the front door of the cabin, fearful of the sort of freezing rain that still hits Meru on occasion as the rainy season gives way to dry, and breathed a sigh of relief. The inky black sky was dotted with stars, crystal clear and cloudless. We quickly threw down some caffeine and cookies, wide awake with anticipation for what lay ahead.
“Do you have everything you need?” asked Teri, who had already intuited that I was the needy one of the bunch. “Do you have snacks?”
I shrugged. I had packed jelly bellies, my go to glucose source for hikes, but in the wet and capricious wildly fluctuating climate on Meru, the jelly beans had melted then re-congealed into one solid fist sized glop in a baggie. In order to eat it, I had to chip away small bits with my fingernails, which were encased in gloves and only moderately clean after two days without a good shower. The instructions we were given as to summit snacks was limited to “you may want some chocolate,” so I had packed a big bar of Vosges, which had, I suspected, also melted and re-solidified at least four times, but it was all I had so in it went to the backpack.
After being fed mercilessly by the camp cook like the witch in the forest fattening up Hansel and Gretel for the past two days, I had assumed we would be sent on our way with some sort of lunchbag for the 11 hour hike that lay ahead, but as I watched him clear our coffee cups and wave a solemn goodbye, I started to realize my mistake.
No matter. The sky was a crystal clear dome, the horizon windless and cool, and I was about to walk to that metal Tanzanian flag 3500 feet above me come hell or high water. I tossed back another couple of Advil, took a swig of G2, and stepped out after Julius. We had a long morning ahead of us.
The hike began well enough, Teri asking our guides the names of the constellations, pointing out the Southern Cross. We strode across the gently rising slopes leading up to Rhino Point, the last major landmark on our hike aside from the summit. Margareta, who was fighting her way through a chest cold, paused. “I’m not sure this is going to work,” she said. Our faces fell. Margareta, one of my personal new heroes who started climbing in her 40s and has already been on Rainier countless times, was the impetus for this hike and the reason both Teri and I were here.
Julius shook his head. “We’ll carry your pack,” he said. “Go as slow as you need, and see how you feel.” He lifted her backpack from her back, gave her a squeeze on the shoulders, and moved on. We continued for an hour, blinking at the ground illuminated only by our headlamps, until the path opened up and the small green sign marking Rhino Point came into view. It was 2 am. Rhino Point, named for the rhinoceros skeleton inexplicably found here at 3800 meters, is the turning point between the lower slopes of the mountain and the actual arduous climb up the steep walls of the crater dome itself. We were allowed just a quick minute for water, stamping our feet in the cold, then we marched on. I looked up ahead of me, knowing there was a massive mountain looming over, but seeing only black, I focused on Julius’s long legs striding off into the ether.
The path on the other side of Rhino Point narrowed again. “What’s on either side?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “Watch your footing.”
At this point, the chit chat halted and we found ourselves entering the meditative state one needs to find in order to continue the trek. We came upon a sharply sloped wall of scree, rocks sticking haphazardly along the side of the mountain. I could see no further than the ten feet illuminated by my headlamp, but I could tell this was the sort of wall one would probably not want to fall off of.
“Just follow the green dots,” Julius said. The National Parks rangers had spray painted green dots along the path to guide hikers to the top in areas where the trail was otherwise unmarked, but in the dark of midnight the green dots disappeared into the shadows. I looked down into the abyss of nothingness, then scrambled to keep up with Julius, praying I didn’t twist an ankle. In my head, I named the section “Crappy Traverse” in honor of its dubious safety.
Soon we levelled off onto a path of soft decomposed lava. I could see the tiny pinpoints of headlamps suspended in midair high above us, younger hikers with faster legs making their way to the top, and nothing else. Teri caught up to me and whispered tips about the proper hiking form for soft, slippery dirt, kicking your toes deep into the dirt to gain traction instead of taking a step and sliding six inches down the trail. Not for the first time, I asked myself why I ever thought this was a good idea. I dug my hiking poles into the black sand, watched the dust swirl in the light of my headlamp, and wondered what I was climbing up. I wouldn’t find out until the way down.
We settled into what can best be described as a meditative state. Teri was softly singing, I was later to learn, counting in French to 300. Without realizing it, I had also begun to recite a mantra in my head, a five word sentence that cycled over and over in one step increments: “This. mountain. is. no. joke. This mountain. is. no. joke.” Breath came quickly, lungs fighting for oxygen in the thinning atmosphere. I tried not to think about it.
My head was pounding. I asked Julius to stop for a moment so I could take Advil, which he grudgingly agreed to. “Quickly, please,” he said. “It’s not a good idea to stop too long.” I hadn’t been drinking nearly enough, but the energy required to stop breathing long enough to take a swallow would actually be enough to wind me for a good thirty seconds. I didn’t realize how gnarly this elevation was until I tried to sip water, then it became obvious. Teri had begun to cough, a wet, hacking cough. She ignored it. We were a hot mess.
The wind had begun to snap at us from both sides, leaving me to wonder what exactly we were walking on, suspended as we were in midair. My legs were numb. My mind was empty. I had reached a point of zen, my brain devoid of thought and oxygen, thinking only of making it to the goal. It was right about this point that Julius pulled us aside and gave us a 10 minute break. “We’re only an hour from the top,” he said. We had been hiking for 5 hours. We drank Gatorade, stretched out our feet, and huddled under a rocky outcropping to stay out of the whipping wind.
About 45 minutes later, my corneas spasmed at the sight of gray peeking at the corners of the horizon. We were approaching dawn, our benchmark for reaching the summit. “There!” said Julius.
“What?” I said.
“The summit,” he said.
And there, suspended in the dark grey sky, I saw it. Socialist Peak. 14, 960 feet. The outline of the flag of Tanzania, the marker at the summit of this mountain I had dreamed of conquering for months. A tiny square poking up into the sky, representing the culmination of this whole crazy adventure. My brain exploded.
I turned into Gollum. “The PRECIOUSSSSS!” I said, and, reaching into some vast reservoir of unknown energy, I looked up the lonely spiky wall of scree we needed to climb in order to reach the summit, and started to scramble. I sprinted, on hands and feet, scrabbling Gollum-like up the side of the mountain in a warp speed last minute ascent.
“Wait for us!” Teri called, but I was in the zone. Nothing would stop me from grabbing the flag. I even left my guide in the dust, knocking him aside with my trekking pole in my mania.
And there it was, glorious, metal, frigid. I ran up and hugged it. Hypoxic and euphoric, I ripped off my gloves and my neckwarmer and yelled in tongues for a few moments, wrapped myself around the pole like I was drowning and it was my lifesaver, then took a second to look around me.
We were on top of the world, above the clouds and the ash cone of Meru’s long ago collapse, suspended on a razor point as the sun rose above Kilimanjaro 50 miles in the distance, spilling light onto the cloud cover like an upended bucket of golden paint. I have never in my life seen a sight quite like it. It was worth every ridiculous moment of my middle aged existence.
Soon after, I was joined by Teri and Margaretta, who had managed this entire climb with her chest cold. We high-fived, we took photos. I took out my chocolate bar, only now realizing it was caramel bar and if I were to eat it would cover my hands in sticky caramel. Disgusted, I took one bite and shoved the rest back in the bag, where it would subsequently melt all over my camera equipment. Or should I say, Brian’s camera equipment.
The couple from Canada who were going it alone had thought to pack Ramen noodles. We cooly watched them eating soup as we sat frozen on the rock, chipping slivers of chocolate off and chewing on semi frozen Gu. As the adrenaline wore off, my body finally clued into the fact that I was entering a state of moderate hypoglycemia in addition to my dehydration and hypoxia, and some small portion of the survivalist region of my cerebellum whispered to me that this was a poor state in which to attempt a mountain descent. I ignored it. I had no choice.
But no matter! I had done it! Me, in my (cough cough) thirtysomethings, a stay at home mom who had just two years prior thought it a grand excursion to walk down the street to the mailbox, had made it to the second highest mountain in Tanzania, a point higher than the highest point in the contiguous United States. On that day, I earned my Badass Old Lady badge.
Only one problem remained: I still had to make it down alive.
On the second day of our Mt. Meru ascent, we were set to continue our climb through the rainforest from Miriakamba Hut (8250 feet) to Saddle Hut (11712 feet). Other than the fact that I was probably not drinking enough water and had the teensiest, tiniest headache, I was feeling awfully good.
We started with a group photo with our amazing support staff from Maasai Wanderings. All of that group there was to support just the three of us getting up the mountain in one piece, guides, porters, cooks. You are allowed to climb this particular mountain without climb staff support, but I wouldn’t want to do it. The guy with the rifle and the beret was Shake the awesome ranger, and right next to him, the tall, spindly figure of Julius the super tall head guide.
The route from Miriakamba to Saddle Hut involved an increase in our angle of ascent, as in, lots and lots and lotsandlots of steps cut into the side of the mountain.
Before the steps were put in there, you just had to slip and slide up and down the mud and hope that if you fell, it wasn’t into a pile of fire ants.
It was nuts to me that even up here, you could run into cape buffalo. Our ranger Shake had his rifle at the ready all the way up to Saddle Hut, the upper limit of buffalo range. We didn’t see any buffalo but we did see lots of bushbuck, and a few colobus monkeys frolicking in the trees.
Did I mention there were a lot of steps?
Steep but gorgeous, with massive strangler figs straddling the edge of the trail as we snaked our way up the lower slopes.
Our guide Julius was in a good mood, as always. Note: You can see how far he had to swing his legs to get his feet off the ground here. I couldn’t catch that branch if I jumped. That man is TALL.
Right around lunchtime, we popped out of the lush rainforest into the semi-alpine heath zone. We were about an hour from the saddle at this point, at a place called Mgongo Wa Tembo (Elephant’s Back), an arch of exposed hump of mountain spine linking the lower slopes to the main mountain saddle. Even here, we were starting to feel the altitude above the cloud cover.
And as we passed over the elephant’s back, we could start to see the saddle itself, in a protected depression between the main volcanic crater of Meru and the smaller, creatively named “Little Meru.” There in that little saddle was Saddle Hut, our next stop.
This is where things really started to feel Lord of the Rings, with us scrabbling over the rocks between strange low brush, eyeing the towering peaks above us.
Those two massive green things you see are the backpacks of the couple from Vancouver who were travelling the world. They carried all their own stuff up Meru and were majorly hardcore, and I really didn’t envy them that climb with those packs.
We were very happy to pull into Saddle Hut around 1.
We were even more jazzed when we realized the clouds had parted enough for us to get a glimpse of Kilimanjaro 50 miles east, our first view of the trip.
After lunch, we were given the option of staying at Saddle Hut or taking an additional hour and a half hike up another 1000 feet to the summit of Little Meru. Half of use decided to take the trip in the hope of ekeing out the additional bit of acclimatization, and the other half decided to rest in advance of our midnight wake up call for the summit push.
I decided to go up Little Meru.
From halfway up we had a great view of Saddle Hut with a glimpse of Big Meru in the background.
At the summit of Little Meru, we had a gorgeous 360 view of what it’s like to be above the clouds.
I felt like Gandalf looking for an eagle to come and pluck me off the peak.
Charged and a little nervous about the summit push that night, I was ambivalent about eating at dinner. I guess when you are at altitude that’s not an uncommon thing, but when you have an eleven hour hike ahead of you, it’s not the time to count calories. I wasn’t thinking straight anyway. Julian, after over a decade leading people up Kilimanjaro and Meru, made it a point to eye our plates and pile on more food if he felt we were being too dainty.
He piled some potatoes on my plate.
“I’m full,” I said.
“You should eat more,” he said.
“I’m fine,” I assured him.
“Ai,” he said, pouring more food in turn onto everyone’s plate. “I have tension.”
Teri cackled. “Are we stressing you out, Julius?”
So we ate a little more, then tried with varying degrees of success to fall asleep early. At midnight, our guides would come and wake us up, and we’d have an hour to drink tea, choke down a cookie, shrug into our mountain gear, and tackle the summit I’ve been planning for and dreaming of for months.
This post is part of a series documenting a trip undertaken by a team of volunteers with World Vets who traveled to Arusha, Tanzania in June 2012 to provide veterinary care for the under (or should be say un-) served donkey population. For the full series of posts covering World Vets, please click here.
The colors, the sights: Kisongo was a tapestry in motion.
Our last day of the World Vets trip started on a bit of a melancholy note. We had just hit our stride and now here we were, about to wrap up. But as you can see, Livingstone had saved the busiest day for last so once we got in the car, there was too much going on to be sad. And as you will hear tomorrow, we also had the job of deflecting the attentions of an overly amorous Maasai to serve as a distraction.
Kisongo, unlike Kikatiti the day before, was a sprawling market that swirled over and through the city center like a shroud. Without the benefit of a village council member like Albert, we had to start the day with Livingstone at the market’s central office to register and make sure we had proper permission to do our work.
The calm before the storm: Dr. Weronko pauses to reflect before the team begins their last day in Tanzania.
While Livingstone was doing paperwork, Kyle brought out his ever popular sporting goods assortment and we all made some new friends. The little girl with the football is going to get her own post, she was THAT cute.
Me and my shadows: Wherever we went in Arusha, curious and adorable children were sure to follow.
While we were waiting, we saw a playful puppy walking by:
It took just a moment for Teri to scoop him up and get him a flea treatment.
But soon enough, we had our permission to begin. The team packed up our bags, loaded down our pockets, and started off to treat the punda. Today, we were accompanied by Carolyn, an agricultural officer from the market.
Alana had brought a large number of donated halters from Australia. Up until this point, we had been rationing them out to donkeys that seemed to be the most in need. Today, since we were winding up, we gave them out more frequently. As Livingstone was to mention, this was a good way to get owners who might otherwise avoid us to agree to treatment: they saw a shiny halter, wanted one for their punda, and then found out about the other services we were offering that day. It was an excellent incentive.
Dr. Beagley fits a donkey with a new halter at the market in Kisongo.
Many of the rope versions the owners were using were ill-fit, cutting the donkeys underneath their orbits.
Before and after: a shiny new harness to replace the ill fitting rope.
Soon the team spotted a punda with a significant infection on his face.
Rudy and Janet immediately started clipping away the crusty fur to see what the skin underneath looked like.
It was a bit of a mess. Ouch.
Then Toccoa began the task of cleaning up all the dirt and purulent debris.
No sink, no problem.
Splish splash: Toccoa gets the suds going on a scrub sponge
But oh, how he dipped his head and pushed into the sponge. If you’ve ever cleaned a dog’s ears when they’re itchy, you know that response, that “ooooh, rub right there please, oh yes ohyesohyes” sort of wiggle.
After getting the area all clean, he was sprayed with Vetericyn and given some antibiotics.
Toccoa protects the eyes while the infected skin is sprayed with Vetericyn.
It looked much better after.
The clippers, of which we only had one set, were a bit of a mess after that. Here, Toccoa is demonstrating a) Proper clipper care; b) with Rachel’s help, how to channel Lakshmi; c) All of the above. (The answer is C.) Clippers are a hot commodity in these parts. Remember that. It comes up again later.
And that was just the day getting started. It got busier:
And just nuts. We ran out of supplies nuts. Took us all day just to complete one circuit of the market nuts.
This was the first day I actually worried about someone getting separated from the group and disappearing into the teeming mass of color, sugar cane, and roasted peanuts for sale.
Can you spot the World Vets guy? Took a second this time, didn’t it.
But you’re not even that interested in that, are you? You all want to hear about the guy who tried, valiantly yet unsuccessfully, to purchase himself his very own World Vets veterinarian for a wife. Well, that’s tomorrow.
This is the World Vets team (minus Kyle, who was behind the camera, and Teri, who was at the dentist) at the end of our third day in Kikatiti. As you can see, compared to our first day in Arusha, we are dustier, our hair is sticking straight up, and the scrubs are pretty decrepit. BUT WE ARE ALL STILL SMILING. And that never stopped.
The two gentlemen at the far left in both rows were our drivers, who were amazing. They took us all over Arusha, finding markets in the middle of cornfields and gamely sitting in the sweltering cars guarding our supplies while we were out donkey wrangling. They were great. I have never met a driver as open about his family life as our driver. One morning I heard his voice suddenly pitch low as he started talking to Rudy, who was in the front seat with him. There was some giggling. Then Rudy said, “You know that method doesn’t work, right?” and more laughing.
“Oh, he’s talking about how his wife got pregnant with their second kid,” said Alana as I was craning my ear towards the front trying to eavesdrop.
“Wow,” I said. “You have good hearing.”
“No,” she said, “I just heard this story yesterday.” (more…)