The stout, elderly woman — think babushka — arrives at the makeshift clinic with her two aging dogs. The dogs are in good health, but she wants them checked out by the American vets anyway. Later, she returns, pushing an old wooden cart laden with kittens to be spayed and neutered. The woman has decided that she trusts these Americans, and they happily oblige. It is, after all, why they’re here in Sărata- Monteoru, Romania.
Among the veterinarians participating in this clinic, which was organized by World Vets (see sidebar), is Stacy Steele from Ocean Shores, Wash. Like most teams put together by World Vets, her group comes from across the U.S. and consists of three other veterinarians, five vet techs, one vet student and three unskilled volunteers with a strong desire to help any way they can. They’ve each paid a fee and their own airfare to come to this remote town. They will stay a week, spending four of those days in clinics doing multiple surgeries and providing needed care in an area where such care is considered extraordinary.
Companion animals don’t have an easy life in rural Romania. “For the last 40 years, dogs and cats have been dumped in the streets, left to breed,” says Dr. Steele. “There are hundreds running loose. Sometimes the army rounds them up to be spayed or neutered. Then they go to a shelter, but not to be adopted out. If people can afford a dog, they buy purebreds,” she says.
At their clinic, the team meets Dr. Dan, a Romanian vet eager to learn how to perform spay/neuter surgeries. Dr. Steele discovers that Romanian vets don’t receive small-animal or surgical experience in their training; their information comes solely from books and is focused on large farm animals. Luckily, Dr. Dan has relatives with small pets and was also able to get some surgical experience at a clinic. “He loves dogs and cats, and is eager to learn how to spay and neuter,” says Dr. Steele. “He traveled hours from his home to spend three days in surgery with us. Dr. Dan will take the skills he learned back to his own town. It’s so gratifying to be able to help a local vet carry on this work.”
The locals are initially wary of the Americans, perhaps a remnant of the mindset fostered under former Communist rule. Eventually, though, more people and their pets arrive at the clinic. The team receives gifts of baked goods and fruit, even tuică and pálinka (homemade hooch). “Just sniffing it burned the hair in my nostrils!” says Dr. Steele.
When a female dog experiences complications, Dr. Steele decides to reopen the surgical site. Afterward, the dog is weak, and Dr. Steele is concerned she won’t survive the cold night. “Owners leave their dogs outside at night in Romania; we’d see them in cardboard boxes on the front stoops,” she says. “When we release dogs to their owners and suggest they keep them warm and inside overnight … you’d think we’d just asked them to let a pig in their bed, or a cow in their kitchen! [In this case,] we got permission from the owner to keep the dog overnight, and we snuck her into our hotel room.” The next day, she was fine. Creative thinking and flexibility are critical tools on these trips.
According to participants, part of the challenge — and fun — of trips with World Vets is stepping outside professional and personal comfort zones and being immersed in a new culture.
Dr. Steele had her first World Vets experience in January 2009, when she went to Loreto, Mexico. In some ways, it was the natural culmination of two years of personal change and growth. In 2006, she was married and working as a vet associate in a local clinic in Seabeck, Wash. The clinic’s owner decided to sell. “It was a big practice. I enjoyed working there, but did not feel it was managed well,” she says. “I had been there nine years. I could pour in lots of capital and effort to turn it around, or go elsewhere. Two weeks later, I saw an ad for a vet practice in ‘a coastal resort town.’ I love the ocean. I decided the practice was mine. My marriage was on the rocks, my job was in limbo and I thought, I can go live at the beach!”