A look back at our activities in Guatemala this winter and spring!

There had been a dark cloud hovering over me prior to this mission of hope to the remote mountains of Guatemala.  As a member of the Board of Directors, I was deeply concerned about the future of our organization because Veterinarians Without Borders, Canada, was currently in the throes of major government funding cuts and staff layoffs —even the future of this project in Todos Santos and our Latin American involvement in general — were on the chopping block.  The very survival of our wonderful NGO was truly in jeopardy.

In addition, since arriving at my winter home in the heartland of Mexico several weeks ago, we had lost one of our horses, sweet old Samurai, to colic on New Years’ Eve.  Then, in the ensuing weeks we witnessed an entire litter five little puppies that our twin eight-year-old boys found out in the campo, succumb one by one to the ravages of canine distemper virus (called Moquillo in Latin America).  It even killed one of our eight rescued Mexican street dogs, despite our most valiant of medical efforts.

So, eager for some inspiration and hope for our future, I was very excited to see Cesar Millan, “The Dog Whisperer”, on my flight from Mexico to Guatemala City, convinced that it was a positive omen.  While others on the plane seemed to be jockeying for a photo-op with this famous celebrity of the animal world, I was thinking about how to pitch him our cause and the need for help with our important and rewarding work.  Thankfully I had one VWB business card left. He was so sweet and approachable and sincere in his response to my elevator speech about our organization and this project I was going to in a remote indigenous village called Todos Santos with free-roaming dog problems, that I surprised even myself.  I talked with him at length about the importance of education, especially with the children of such communities, in helping to prevent dog bites and casualties from rabies as well as basic canine care and welfare. I also mentioned our vaccination and sterilization programs and discussed  the sustainability of this work through our capacity-building efforts with local veterinarians, public health authorities and the municipalities.  As a spokesperson I said he could help get this message across to an enormous number of people, particularly in Latin America where he was so well-received.  We hugged and called each other “hermano”. Then suddenly I was off on an adventure to a completely different world.

It was great to meet up again with Elena and Guillermo, our project managers in Guatemala City.  I first met Dr. Elena Garde at our Board retreat in British Columbia when I signed on as a Director with VWB. I was inspired by her great work in running our Latin American office with her biologist husband Guillermo Perez in Chile and joined them there on the dog project in Puerto Natales down in Patagonia two years ago. The project we collaborated on was a great success and we had an amazing experience together.

We were joined in Guatemala City by Elena’s son Theiren from Victoria, a vibrant, bilingual life-saving rescuer in his own right and Amaria, a lovely, motivated teacher from Guatemala with a passion for our cause, as well as Dr. Scarlett Magda from New York City, a dear colleague and fellow director on our board. Scarlett is a young innovator who single handedly improved the lives and welfare of working elephants in Asia by simply changing their saddle design.

So we all packed ourselves into a rented diesel microbus and started out on the 300 km. trek, which would take us roughly 8 hours down steadily winding roads that climbed to an altitude of approximately 8,000 feet. Along the way we saw beautiful purple flowers cascading down hillsides of terraced cornfields.  Women wearing long skirts and children with sun-drenched cheeks carried heavy bundles on their backs or balanced on top of their heads.  Multi-coloured recycled old school buses careered by, belching clouds of black diesel fumes, while people hung off the tops or backs of vans and buses, or rode by on horseback, herded a few sheep, or walked with their pigs on a leash. There were several small Toyota pickup trucks loaded down with way too many colourfully-dressed passengers. An entire family of five would putt by on a small motorcycle, without any helmets of course, and an old man with a cane collapsed at the side of the road as we passed by.  Stopping to help him back up on his pins, we parted with a pat on the back and he gave us toothless grin of gratitude.  I had almost forgotten about that dark cloud over my head until I was painfully reminded by the large number of dead dogs we saw by the side of the road.

Todos Santos is a village locked in time and space by the surrounding cloud and forest-covered mountains.  Although relatively close to the Mexican border, this place is very culturally isolated and different from its surroundings— more reminiscent of the indigenous Andean villages of Peru.  The people speak Mam in Todos Santos, which is a Mayan dialect, and wear very traditional clothing. Straw hats typically for the men and boys, paired with loose red and white striped jeans, which are covered by navy chaps with a colourful sash and denim striped shirts that have a wide embroidered collar, usually in dark blues and purples.  Most women have their hair tied back and wear long, dark skirts topped by ornately woven blouses with side slits to facilitate breast feeding.  Often they will stoop down to hike a young child into position on their backs in a woven wrap tied at the front, called a “huipil”.  They also wear black dress shoes with enough of a heel to cause one to wonder how they can miraculously traverse the dangerously steep and slippery narrow cobblestone streets of this unique place.  With brilliant smiles people often adorn their teeth with silver or gold edging. Not surprisingly, most dentists here buy and sell gold on the side.

There are a few rag-tag dogs dodging the people, buses and three-wheeled tuk-tuks on the streets which look more like they should be in Nepal than Latin America.  The smell of diesel and dog faeces is overwhelmed by the highly resinous pine wood smoke of the cook stoves in town, which along with the chill of the mountain air stimulates one’s appetite for the typical local fare of corn tortillas, fried bananas and the multiple innovative presentations of beans and eggs.   The numbers of free-roaming dogs on the streets is a lot less than what we encountered in Patagonia two years ago and it is a tribute to the ongoing efforts by VWB’s Todos Santos Project over the past five or six years, and some improvements in waste management.  However the archaic slaughterhouse still spills offal directly into the local river and this along with the market and the garbage dump are continuous sources of food and potential diseases for stray dogs.

After a short meeting with some of the municipal leaders, we learn that there have been more mass poisonings of dogs again this past year— something the community brought us in to try to prevent in the first place. The poisonings were likely in reaction to a mismanaged case of rabies in a nearby community where a six-year-old girl died as a result.  I feel a shiver from the moist mountain air as a thick mist hovers over the peaks, blocking out the sun.  We ask ourselves if it is really worthwhile to keep this program afloat, struggling with all the costs and obstacles if they are just going to conduct random mass poisonings of dogs anyway.  These types of campaigns rarely discriminate between strays and pets and there is a potential danger of accidentally poisoning other domestic animals, wildlife or even children.  Death from this type of poisoning is often an excruciating and slow process of seizures and convulsions.  I wondered about all the dead dogs we saw by the roadside.  Were they simply random road kill or poisoned dogs inadvertently seeking a quicker demise?

Amaria’s fantastic educational program with the local children provided an uplifting distraction.  Theiren was a natural as Scooby-Doo, and Scarlett was a great sport, sweltering in her Barbujo dog costume, which was designed to accompany a story by Dr. Angelica Romeo, one of our Chilean staff members.  The kids were off school due to a strike, but slowly and surely they dribbled into the Salon Municipal, a large auditorium that the municipality provided us with to use for the campaign.  Fully engaged in story-telling, games and arts and crafts, the children and several parents delighted in the activities geared towards sending home messages about responsible pet ownership, such as proper nutrition and feeding of dogs, and making sure they had plenty of fresh water and shelter from the elements.  They were taught how to secure dogs properly in order to prevent dogs from getting dangerously tangled up in their tethers or roaming the streets.  They learned about the need for vaccinations, deworming and sterilization as important methods of prevention of diseases and overpopulation.

We acted out scenarios around dog bite prevention utilizing the “be a tree” and “be a rock” techniques, although many of the children still carried a deeply ingrained “throw a rock” fear-based response to dogs.    We all had a wonderful time and the children were polite, attentive and delightful, happily chasing after Scooby and Barbujo, sometimes pulling their tails in good fun, but mostly giving hugs and really absorbing all of our important messages.  At one point a group of children was waving small Canadian flags and popping balloons while they phonetically sang “Oh Canada!”  A real highlight was the screening of the original animated version of 101 Dalmations, and the peals of laughter and sheer joy of some fifty or more kids and many of their parents. Hearing everybody’s enjoyment made us want to do so much more.

On Market Day the din[JB1] in the streets outside my hotel room starts dark and early on a Saturday morning.  Tarps are being strung up for shade from one side of the street to the other, while roosters crow, bus horns blare, engines are revving and dogs are barking. Infants are crying and people are busily babbling, laughing and shouting to each other while setting up their stalls.  The mariachi cowboy music is deafening as it competes with the hawkers chanting about their wares and cure-all potions.  I try to snuggle deeper into my pile of woolen blankets as the crisp, cold mountain air nibbles at my ears, nose and toes.  Casa Familiar, our spartan but clean and tidy hotel is in various stages of renovation, as are most of the buildings in town.  Apparently property taxes in Todos Santos are due only when construction is complete.  We are conveniently located directly across the street from the Salon Municipal and the Saturday Market occupies the entire street between us, spreading downhill to and around the Palacio Municipal or Town Hall, leaving only narrow, low-slung foot paths for customers to rummage through.  The scene from my balcony is alive and bustling and beautiful.  Throngs of people wind through all kinds of stuff, like pastries and breads, fruits and vegetables, clothing, beads and trinkets, chickens,  beans and spices, C.D.’s, belts and Crocs, all to the slapping rhythms of young women busily preparing tortillas.

We were scheduled to go out into that melee to flog our campaign this morning.  Banners are up and we’ve been interviewed and announced on local radio.  This is our big day of exposure as all the people from the surrounding mountain cantons come down to the market to buy and sell.  Today the Allandale group has joined us— a lively bunch of veterinarians, technicians and support staff from a clinic in Barrie, Ontario who volunteered with VWB for this project last year and fell in love.  Their fund raising success is inspirational and their enthusiasm contagious!  We are also joined by Tracy Cornish, a veterinarian from Vancouver Island who has been a project leader for several years, and Stacey Ness, a highly skilled technician from Victoria with a radiant smile, they all infuse our campaign with a tremendous amount of energy and a much-needed morale boost.

With new volunteers donning the Scooby and Barbujo costumes, we took a lot more arts and crafts and games and stories to the crowds of children in the Palacio Municipal.  Men leaned over the rails as if in formation watching the Guatemalan military presence in their contrasting dull green uniforms and vehicles.  I asked one of the locals if the soldiers were here every market day and his answer was, “Why, are you afraid of them?”—as if to say, “this is our cultural home no matter what, and nobody bothers us here.”

Nearby a snake oil hawker was dramatically selling many small bottles to the crowd of some liquid that was supposedly made from the rare oils of skunks, coyotes, armadillos and tigers, skins and skulls of which he had on display along with graphic posters of pathological conditions that this stuff was guaranteed to cure.  I did buy a bottle for 28 quetzales (around $3.75) out of curiosity to apply to an old knee injury that was acting up here.  It smelled a lot like Absorbine Jr., and was certainly less effective topically.  I just wondered what this stuff would do to those brave enough to drink it, and how much wildlife was actually being poached to support this type of business.

Five cheerful and eager Guatemalan veterinarians joined us to exchange ideas and techniques, working toward a common goal of capacity-building and the sustainability of this project within the country.  Andrea, Victor, Germania and Gonzalo were all from Guatemala City and Adriana came from nearby Huehuetenango, or “Way-way”, as everyone called it.  Andrea and Adriana had worked on this VWB project before and were actively involved in sterilization clinics outside of their own practice zones. They employed a modified version of the controversial McKee method using plastic “zap-straps” soaked only in alcohol to tie off blood vessels.  They wanted to learn safer, but equally efficient techniques from us and more about the community educational and preventive medicine components of this campaign.

Since our mandate on this campaign was to only administer rabies vaccines which had been donated by the local department of public health, I collaborated with Adriana to bring some canine distemper vaccine doses to Todos Santos, to at least vaccinate the puppies that came to us in order to provide them with somewhat of a fighting chance against the ravages of that horrible disease.  The virus resembles the human measles virus and can mutate easily, infecting different hosts and currently wreaking havoc in the endangered large wild cat populations of the world where humans and their free-roaming dogs are encroaching on their habitat.  It infects the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of the body and causes a slow, painful death.  Those few that survive the disease are usually crippled by persistent neurological shakes, tremors and seizures.

That night we had a group meeting about the future of the project, given the constraints, challenges and obstacles we were facing.  Everyone was very supportive and positive about wanting to continue to provide this much-needed service, and most of the group were willing to return again if the project were to continue, whether Veterinarians Without Borders was able to actively support it or not.  Setting up for surgery on Sunday I realized what a huge logistical undertaking this campaign really was, requiring a lot of organization, communication and coordination.  We were now a formidable group of volunteers—eleven veterinarians and eight support staff, plus three hired assistants from Todos Santos, the most important of which was Andres, our trilingual liaison and go-getter.  An extremely capable yet reserved young man, his favourite expression was, “Just take your time…”

So here I thought I had brought a lot of equipment in my overweight suitcases— all stuffed with equipment from the VWB storage bunker at the Vet College in Guelf. I had lugged my suitcases from Canada through Mexico and on to Guatemala but it wasn’t until I saw how much stuff the Allandale group had hauled down from Barrie in so many familiar-looking Veterinary Purchasing Co. green plastic totes, that I felt like I had brought very little.  That, in addition to everything accumulated and stored for us here by the municipality over the past several years, including a large and very heavy surgical autoclave set us up as a very well-equipped field hospital, fully prepared us for any emergency that might arise.  Little did I know that we’d soon be put to the test!

It is truly amazing how a large cold empty hall with a few murals at one end, some empty water drums stored in the stands, and a few birds nesting in the rafters, can suddenly be transformed into the chaotic flurry of activity that we witnessed that week in the Todos Santos Salon Municipal.  Intravenous bottles were hung from soccer nets converted into a recovery area.  Multiple desks, tables, sawhorses and boards were propped up on concrete blocks and covered in colourful plastic table cloths to serve as examination, surgery and equipment tables.  Stacks of plastic chairs were conscripted into surgical instrument stands, the rest used to organize two waiting areas—one for surgical cases and the other for the vaccination group.  There, some people played a form of musical chairs with their pets, patiently awaiting their turns, while others simply rested after a long trek into town.  We had two dedicated ladies on our intake desk, greeting people in a mix of Mam and Spanish, checking bookings and appointments, preparing medical and surgical records on their clipboards, as well as issuing the “carnets” or passports that the owners kept for their own records of their pets’ vaccinations and sterilization procedure.

Patty Lechten, the head vet from Allandale and her team, were amazingly well prepared and organized.  There was water being warmed on a little camp stove to fill hot water bottles for the prevention of hypothermia during surgery and in the recovery area, where Jan and Courtney had plenty of thermal blankets and everything set up and ready to go.  Natalie was busily preparing and sterilizing surgical packs in the autoclave while our technicians, Melissa and Stacey were setting up the operating tables with catheters, endotracheal tubes and everything necessary right down to the little infants’ stockings used to keep paws warm during surgery.  While we may have lacked some sophisticated equipment deemed as standard for North American veterinary clinics, such as fluid pumps, electronic monitoring equipment and gas anesthetic machines, our injectable anesthetic protocols were well organized by Dr. Tracy Cornish and we had an excellent assortment of syringes, drugs and medications at our disposal.  Theiren was doling out and recording all the rabies vaccines from a little cooler near the recovery area where he was also going over discharge instructions with our surgical go-homes.  Occasionally kids would endearingly call him Escubi, (their version of Scooby-Doo) which is what many of our patients were called as well.  The other commonly used pet name here was Duqui, which I took to mean “Doggie”.

As we worked in our loosely organized groups — Guatemalan vets usually partnering with their Canadian counterparts — we joked about who would be giving who massages, our backs and shoulders quickly stiffening up because the only adjustments we could make to the table heights was by how many blocks we could prop under their legs.  Also in using only head lamps for illumination, we would often find ourselves stooping closer and closer to our patients as we worked intently while the batteries drained.  Surgeries were mainly done in the mornings so that recovering animals could go home the same day, while the afternoons were reserved primarily for vaccinations.  While we did try to book things that way, most days consisted of a semi-organized chaos with both going on simultaneously, dogs and curious people wandering around surgery tables and uninhibitedly watching us closely at work, or off in their own worlds, grown men weighing themselves on our scales, kids giggling and playing tag between us, or dogs marking their territory.

Most of our patient dogs were actually quite well-behaved, on their length of chain or clothesline leashes, while cats were usually transported inside an old grain sac.  Only a few animals would require special measures of restraint, and the occasional breakaway would incite a flurry of activity and shouts to “close the door!”  Theiren made one truly exceptional save, preventing a cat from flying out of a high window in true Scooby-Doo style.  It was great to see so many of our patients already sterilized; some of the males were done chemically in previous years with a controversial product called Esterisol, and were now returning for booster vaccinations and a health check.  Some clinical presentations included festering bite wounds, deep scars on paws from wire snares, post-distemper shakes, facial warts on puppies and nasty transmissible venereal tumours— another good reason for sterilizing dogs.  There were also all manner of parasites, from fleas, mange and ticks to intestinal worms, that we treated, in an effort to help our patients, but also to prevent zoonotic disease transmission such as Echinococous cysts in the children.

An elderly dog belonging to Santiaga, the woman who ran our hotel, presented with a very large, pendulous mammary tumour which was ulcerated and infected.  I removed it and the affected local lymph nodes surgically and Smokey had a splendid recovery.  This then won me all kinds of special favours like hot showers, hand-washed laundry, and a delicious cardamom-flavoured coffee that I had only ever tasted before in the Middle East, in addition to some special deals on the hand-woven fabrics and clothing for sale at the hotel’s women’s cooperative store.

From that Monday to Friday we all worked together to vaccinate close to 500 animals for rabies, 40-50 puppies for  distemper and parvovirus, and surgically sterilized almost 100 dogs, both males and females, some of which were already pregnant or in heat.  Each surgical dog got a newly donated collar or leash, or a VWB red bandana.  The teamwork was fantastic and we all learned from each other—new skills and techniques in clinical examinations, surgery, anesthesia and monitoring, as well as pre- and post- surgical protocols and care.  In this remote indigenous community despite poor living conditions and a strained economy, through their participation and support people showed a deep concern, compassion and love for their pets, and the universal human-animal bond was strongly evident.

We could also never have accomplished so much fine work without the amazing nutritional support from Senora Floria and her fine team, cooking us three hearty meals each day.  Whether we trundled off down the hill to her place in the early morning for breakfast, or after sunset for a rewarding dinner, or she packaged up a hot lunch and brought it to us while we worked in the Salon, we were always assured of a great meal.  The food was delicious and nutritious, varied in flavours, textures and tastes, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables incorporated into traditional recipes.  Her breaded, deep-fried vegetables, wonderful fruit juices, and delicious banana pancakes really stand out in my mind, along with the laughter around the breakfast table when she brought the honey out in a Johnny Walker Red bottle.

Our great success was also a direct result of the tremendous efforts by our Latin American project managers, Elena and Guillermo.  They met personally with the mayor of Todos Santos during this campaign and he conveyed to them that he was very pleased with the tremendous progress of our project over the years.  There had been a significant decrease in the number of aggressive dogs roaming the streets, in biting incidents and in the general dog population.  Also quite noticeable to him was a real change in the attitudes of the people of Todos Santos, especially amongst the children, with a shift towards more responsible pet ownership and improved general care.  Many more dogs were being sterilized and returning annually for their rabies vaccines.  He appeared concerned about the recent poisonings and felt it would be better if we could somehow maintain a more regular presence than once a year.  He said that he definitely wanted us to return and for the project to continue.  He even had the municipality pay our hotel bill as a gesture of good faith.  This was certainly encouraging as our mandate is to leave a culturally suitable and sustainable solution to the dog problems in place with strong government support.

But unfortunately dog bites still do occur.  We received an urgent call from Victor, the local medical doctor to come quickly to his office.  There was a small four-year-old boy lying on the examination table, surrounded by his distraught family.  Despite his obvious pain from a very swollen eye and cheek, there were no tears, and he politely greeted us with a faint “buenas noches”.  He had been viscously attacked by his uncle’s older dog who had received a VWB rabies vaccination once several years ago. The uncle did not want us to euthanize his dog contrary to our recommendations.  It was a family matter and there apparently existed a stigma against this type of intervention.  He said he would take care of it himself and we just asked Victor that he please do it as humanely as possible.  Victor then requested a few doses of our veterinary rabies vaccine, Rabisin, as there was no human vaccine available and he wanted to give the boy some immediate protection just in case.  Andres reassured us that he used it himself according to Victor’s protocol when he was bitten by a stray dog a few months ago.  What could we say?

Friday was the last day of our campaign.  It was also Valentine’s Day and I was missing my family.  The plan was to not book as many surgeries so we could wrap up early, do a complete inventory, clean up, and knock down our field hospital, leaving our equipment in storage with Dr. Victor as well as the municipality.  The Guatemalan vets were preparing to leave and Tracy, Stacey and the Allandale group had a van scheduled to pick them up very early the next morning.  More surgeries actually showed up than were booked, likely because people knew it was our last day, and we wanted to get as many sterilizations and vaccinations done as we could.  I had been immersed in surgeries all morning and had just finished one dog spay and was anesthetizing my last one when the girls in recovery called me over.

Jan had noticed Duqui, my most recent surgical case, taking an unusually long time to recover.  Her endotracheal tube was still in place and her temperature and heart rate were dropping despite attempts by Jan and Courtney to warm her up and revive her.  I checked her gums and they did look a little pale, but her capillary refill time was still normal and her breathing was steady.  She had had several litters of puppies in her lifetime and her uterus and ovaries were quite engorged, causing significant oozing during surgery.  I had already become accustomed to more surgical bleeding than usual during this campaign. Whether or not it was due to the altitude, parasitism or the poor nutrition of the dogs of Todos Santos, (most of which were on a staple diet of corn tortillas), it was a fact of life, and we all compensated with greater surgical care and attention to hemostasis as much as possible.  Thankfully thus far there had been no casualties.  I turned up her I.V. fluid rate and asked them to continue to monitor her carefully for a few more minutes as I scrubbed up for my next surgery, and to get one of the other doctors to check on her if things were not improving.

A few minutes later, as I was closing up, Patty came up to me waving a syringe containing 4-5 c.c.’s of frank blood.  “I just tapped that little dog’s abdomen, and I don’t know if I might have hit the spleen, or…”  My heart sank as if a dark cloud had suddenly descended.  I knew all that blood hadn’t come from the spleen.  Duqui had an abdomen of free-floating blood which meant internal hemorrhage.  “Get her back on the table quickly!”  I barked through my surgical mask, “I’ll be right there.” I had felt so helpless in the recent deaths of our horse and all those distemper puppies.  I just couldn’t bear another casualty under my watch.  Time was of the essence.  I stitched rapidly, painfully aware that I was using our last sterile surgical pack.  I tried to keep as many instruments clean and off to the side as I could, then dashed around collecting a few random sterile instruments, gauze, suture materials, etc. to put together the best surgical pack I could muster while Patty and the technicians were getting Duqui back under anesthesia and prepped.  I was grateful to Tracy for providing us with Propofol, a very safe intravenous anesthetic.

There is a “twilight zone” that I enter in certain situations that is hard to describe, but that’s where I was at that particular moment.  Time appears to stand still when a life is hanging in a delicate balance.  Asking Patty to scrub in with me, I then requested several sterile jumbo syringes as I started to reopen the abdomen and the blood spouted forth.  Quickly we filled each syringe with abdominal blood and passed them off to Stacey and Mellissa who knew exactly what to do.  Even though we did not have the luxury of a transfusion kit with filters and anticoagulants, if you’re fast and careful to avoid the big clots, one can perform a life-saving auto-transfusion, which is exactly what my incredibly competent team and I did, the technicians rapidly injecting over 250 c.c.’s of Duqui’s blood directly back into her circulation through the I.V. line.

Even though all my ligatures were still intact, we clamped and tied them all again even deeper into the abdomen, but there was still some significant bleeding going on.  So slowly and methodically, we sponged up blood for visibility and clamped and tied off bleeders until we felt confident enough to close up.  Duqui’s first incision had been neat and tidy, but this new one was huge in order to give us the required exposure, from above her umbilicus nearly to her groin, and it took me some time to suture her up.  I believe I needed that time to come back down to earth, realizing my exhaustion, humility and hunger as I started to smell the delicious lunch that most of the others had already  eaten.  There was so much to be thankful for.

Duqui was a cute little Jack Russell Terrier-type and actually in very decent body condition which was surely to her advantage.  Her second surgical recovery that day went much smoother than the first, and we wrapped her in a snug pink body bandage just for good measure.  At this point I thought we should change her name to “Valentina” in honour of the day and the outcome.  Guillermo spoke to her owner about the surgical complications and the need for some special home care and we decided to drive them home in the van.  The house we dropped them off at was quite upscale for Todos Santos; very nice and clean with wrought iron gates and lots of ceramic tile.  Both Andres and Guillermo stressed the importance of careful monitoring, strict rest and confinement, and plenty of fresh water and nutritious food—not just tortillas.  The woman smiled with understanding and gratitude.

We all worked hard and fast to get the Salon Municipal cleaned up and back in order and all our gear sorted out and stored safely away until next time.  Before dinner Guillermo, Andres and I went on house call rounds in the van, checking on a couple of recovering post ops— one with a bite wound that kept opening up and another with a very swollen scrotum and prepuce after neutering.  They were doing much better, but a call came through to say that little Duqui was bleeding.  We rushed right over.

When we arrived at the house the woman told us that the dog was not there–that this was actually her sister’s house and from here they had moved the dog home, “only five minutes away.”   As we all started driving up the steep, gravelly road in the microbus in the dark I became very concerned and had Guillermo ask her how she had transported the dog.  No answer, just some idle chatter in Mam.  Then he asked her again in Spanish, more sternly.  “Oh, caminando” was the reply.  Walking??!!!???  We were visibly not pleased.

It was almost a kilometer up hill on very poor roads to the dismal farm house where Valentina was being kept.  We found her in a cold, dingy, open basement, chained to a blood-soaked makeshift bed with no food or water in sight.  She looked miserable and was shivering, blood oozing from the top of her bandage.  Guillermo reprimanded the woman and told her how dangerous and wrong this was.  I was so upset.  My father had died years ago, bleeding out after surgery in a Toronto hospital where he had always said he would have received better care in my veterinary clinic.  We took Valentina back to the hotel with us, rewrapped her abdomen and got the bleeding under control.   Opening a bottle of wine, I stayed with her in front of the fireplace, trying to comfort her with a little food and water while the others went to our last dinner at Floria’s to celebrate a successful campaign with several bottles of wine of their own.

The group brought me back some food, most of which I fed to Valentina, while we all sat around this lucky little dog, exchanging stories and jokes about the great week we had spent together, working hard to help this wonderful community, who were by all indications very grateful and hospitable, having developed a much deeper awareness of our cause.  We drank a bit and laughed a lot and went to bed fairly early, tired in a good way.  I was so thrilled that sweet little Valentina had survived and that our campaign had been so successful.

Next morning I awoke at 5:30 a.m.  The Canadians had just left and I could hear people in the streets setting up tarps and stalls for the Saturday market.  Valentina looked great.  She’d been out for a pee, had something to eat and drink and the girls had removed her bandages to make her more comfortable.  No more bleeding!  She was in the common kitchen area which opened into Tracy and Stacey’s empty room.  I scooped Valentina up and snuggled into one of their beds with her for the rest of the morning.  It was a very good sleep!

We delivered Valentina back to her sheepish but grateful owner with very explicit instructions, medications and stern warnings about curbing her activity and taking proper care of her.  The hustle and bustle of packing and loading the van through the market throngs occupied the rest of the morning.  Then came the heartfelt and teary goodbyes; Floria and her wonderful cooking team, Dr. Victor and his wife, Gloria, Andres, whose help was immeasurable, several people in the streets who thanked us for the campaign, and dear Santiaga, along with all the great people who worked at Casa Familiar, especially young Mario, “my awesome friend” who we all came to love for his sweetness, charm and eagerness to help.  We have decided to start a fund to assist him and his family so he can go back to school.

After leaving Todos Santos, Elena, Guillermo, Theiren and I recharged our physical and emotional batteries in a quiet little fishing village on Lake Atitlan for a few days, surrounded by volcanoes, beautiful birds, and warm breezes.  I was gearing up for a weekend workshop in chilly Ottawa where our VWB Board of Directors was hoping to develop a strategic plan for our survival as an organization.  For me, the most important thing we could do was to immerse ourselves in our projects first-hand in order to really be able to understand and talk about what we do and why we do it.  I was hoping the Dog Whisperer would be on my flight home.  There was so much more I had to tell him!

Meet Sra Luisa. She wants a permanent Veterinarian in Todos Santos.

Sra Luisa lives in Los Pablos which is a suburb of Todos Santos, Guatemala.  She is 54 years of age, and currently supports her three children as well as her son’s two children alone. Sra Luisa has two pigs, one which she intends to sell and one which will, one day, will feed her family. She has 34 chickens which she uses as a source of food as well as sells the eggs for money. She works as a midwife and also sews traditional clothing to support her family.

Sra Luisa has two dogs Supercon and Ducky, as well as a cat Dulce. Dulce means sweet in Spanish. Both of her dogs have been sterilized by Veterinarians without Borders. She used to have another dog but was forced to poison it. Her dog escaped from her yard, snuck into her neighbour’s house and stole some food. Her neighbour told her to “get rid of her dog” or he would report her to the municipality and have her put in jail. In Todos Santos, when hungry dogs are caught stealing the municipality will force owners to kill their dog. Since there is no veterinary clinic or humane way to euthanize animals in Todos Santos, people in the community are often forced to poison them with strychnine. When rabies was more common, people would throw sticks and stones at the dogs until they died.

Sra Luisa’s biggest concern in her town before Veterinarians without Borders came to work in 2008, was that she feared letting her children walk freely outside. People used to carry stones or sticks with nails in them to beat the dogs off them while walking the streets. Rabies was frequently reported in dogs in the area.

What Sra Luisa wants the most is for a permanent veterinarian to be situated in Todos Santos. She love’s the work Veterinarians without Borders does in her community and is grateful for it. She appreciates that the activities are directed toward public health as well as the animals. She will continue to support Veterinarians without Borders in her community and values their presence in Todos Santos.

In February 2014, Vets without Borders and 22 volunteers will return to continue working with Todos Santos.

To learn more about Vets without Borders work in Todos Santos, please visit our website. To support our work with Sra. Luisa and others from her community, please consider donating. To receive a tax receipt, please donate through our website. To receive some great perks, please donate through indiegogo.


My last week in Canada / Mi última semana en Canadá (by Dr. Heidi Sandoval de Argüello)

En Español abajo

My last week in Allandale Veterinary Hospital went by really fast, suddenly it was time to pack and say goodbye. I hardly felt the last days went through; it was an intense week with a lot of work and some interesting cases. I was able to see a blood transfusion; I was able to see another endoscopy to do a biopsy of duodenum and stomach tissue. There were some orthopedics surgeries as well and a rescued duckling came in. I was able to participate in the Client Education Seminar on Pet Food, Presented by Dr. Van Delst of Hills Pet Nutrition with the collaboration of Allandale Veterinary Hospital. The whole experienced for me was really rewarding personal and professionally. I learned a lot. I go back to Guatemala with the intention of being able to put in practice all the knowledge and techniques learned. I want to thank VWB-Canada, the staff of Allandale Veterinary Hospital and specially Dr. Patricia Lechten for this opportunity. I am grateful to have had the experience to spend time though VWB-Canada in Allandale Veterinary Hospital. I also want to thank my family, husband and kids, without their support and patience I could not have been able to do this. I really hope I can continue collaborate with VWB-Canada in a near future.


Mi última semana en Allandale Veterinary Hospital se me paso muy rápido, cuando sentí, ya era hora de empacar y decir adiós. Los últimos días ni los sentí, fue una semana intensa de mucho trabajo y algunos casos interesantes, ver una transfucción sanguínea, presenciar de nuevo una endoscopia y biopsia de duodeno y estómago. Algunas otras cirugías ortopédicas y hasta un patito huérfano rescatado. También pude participar en el Client Education Seminar on Pet Food, Presentado by Dr. Van Delst of Hill’s Pet Nutrition con la colaboración del Allandale Veterinary Hospital. Toda la experiencia para mí fue de mucha satisfacción personal y profesional. Aprendí muchísimo. Regreso a Guatemala con el propósito de poder poner en práctica los conocimientos y técnicas aprendidas. Agradezco públicamente a VWB-Canadá por haberme permitido tener esta gran oportunidad, también agradezco muchísimo a todo el personal de Allandale Veterinary Hospital en especial a la Dra. Patricia Lechten y también agradezco muchísimo a mi familia mi esposo e hijos que sin su apoyo y paciencia esta experiencia no lo hubiera logrado realizar. Espero poder continuar colaborando con VWB-Canadá.

Dr. Sandoval visits the Ontario Veterinary College – Dra. Sandoval visita la facultad de medicina veterinaria en Ontario

En Español abajo

On thursday may 9th, I met  with Adam Little, at the Ontario Veterinary College, at the University of Guelph. He gave me a tour of the college. We where able to walk and see must of all the facilities, like some class rooms, Hospital of small and large animals respectively.
The entire  college is beautiful, the old buildings, are so gorgeous.  We walk through Hill’s Pet Nutrition Primary Healthcare Center and the Animal Cancer Center. Both facilities are brand new, and the main purpose is to be able to provide better health services to animals, and develop new treatments.
I am really pleased that I got the opportunity to have this tour, is an amazing place.

El dia Jueves 9 de mayo, me reuní con Adam Little, en la Facultad de Veterinaria de Ontario en la Universidad de Guelph, para poder conocer las instalaciones de dicha institución. Pudimos recorrer buena parte de las instalaciones, como el Hospital de pequeñas  y grandes especies, respectivamente.
Toda la facultad es muy bonita, los edificios antiguos son bellísimos.
Pudimos conocer también las instalaciones  de Hill’s Pet Nutrition Primary Healthcare Center and the Animal Cancer Center, ambos centros recién empezaron a brindar sus servicios, con el propósito de poder brindar mejores tratamientos para todo tipo de animal, así como desarrollar e implementar nuevos tratamientos.
Me siento muy complacida de haber podido realizar esta visita, toda la facultad es espectacular.

Un día en una clínica de emergencia en Canadá/A day at an emergency clinic in Canada

On sunday, I spent the whole day, from 9am-6pm at the Huronia Veterinary Emergency Clinic. This clinic gives emergency services in the area. This was a long weekend, sunday was really busy. Here are some pictures of some of the patients that came in. The first picture is from a dog that was bitten by two dogs, the second pictures is a dog that was playing in the woods and cut is paw and the third pictures is a puppy that was hit by a car and broke his knee.

El día domingo fui a pasar todo el día a la clínica de Emergencias Huronia, esta clínica le brinda servicios de emergencia a el área. El día domingo, habían muchos pacientes, ya que era un fin de semana largo. Les comparto fotografías de algunos de los pacientes,
la primera es de un perro que fue mordido por otros dos perros, la segunda fotografía es de un perro que estaba jugando en el bosque y se corto su pata y la tercera es de un cacharro que fue atropellado y sufrió una fractura de la rodilla.




Diving into a Canadian clinic – straight from Guatemala

En Español más abajo


The last past  few days at the clinic had been truly interesting. I have been was able to see how a Tibial Tuberosity Advancement (TTA) and Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy (TPLO) surgeries are done.  On Monday I was able to see a removal of three lumps on a dog, the three of them where lipomas, the most common tumor in large breed dogs.  Tuesday was a very long day, 12 hours of continued work. Definitely I was able to see a lot of fascinating cases, there were two intoxicated pets, a dog that ingested pills, and a cat that ate some rodonticide. A rat came in with lice, usually rats area not consider as pets in my home country. I was able to perform a spay on a dog. A doctor with special interested in radiology came in to perform a biopsy on a dog that has a tumor in this rectum, he took the tissue example guided with the ultrasound, and we where able to drain some of the liquid from the mass. We are waiting on the biopsy results.

Los ultimos dias en la clinica has sido my interesantes.  Pude ver como se lleva a cabo una cirugia de Avance de la Tuberosidad Tibial para el tratamiento de la insuficiencia del ligamento cruzado anterior (TTA) y Osteotomia nivelada del plato tibial (TPLO).  El dia lunes pude precenciar la remocion de tres lipomas en un perro, el lipoma es el tumor mas comun en perros de razas grandes. El dia martes fue un dia muy largo, 12 horas de trabajo. Definitivamente pude ver varios casos fascinantes.  Dos pacientes intoxicados, un perro que tomo muchas pastillas y un gato que comio veneno para ratas.  Llego una rata como paciente, en mi pais las ratas no son consideradas mascotas.  Realice una castracion de una perra. Se llevo a cabo una toma de una biopsia de una masa ubicada en el recto de un perro, la muestra se pudo obtener con la ayuda del ultrasonido, estamos a la esperamos los resultados del laboratorio.

Drs. Heidi Sandoval (from Guatemala) and Patricia Lechten, appear on a Canadian TV show speaking about the work Veterinarians without Borders-Canada does in Guatemala.

On tuesday night Dr. Lechten and my self, where invited to the Animal Housecalls TV show. To talk about the visit to Guatemala made with Veterinarians Without Borders and Allandale Veterinary Hospital staff.
We got the chance to talk about the neuters and sprays made and the rabies vaccination.

Link to watch the show: www.cp24.com/talk-shows/animal-house-calls. May 7, part 3

El martes por la noche, la Dra. Lechten y yo, fuimos invitadas al programa de television Animal Housecalls. Para hablar acerca de la visita hecha a Guatemala por parte de Veterinarios Sin Fronteras y personal del Hospital Veterinario Allandale (Canada). Pudimos compartir la experiencia de haber castrado a perros machos y hembras y haber realizado vacunacion antirabica.

Link para el ver el show:www.cp24.com/talk-shows/animal-house-calls 7 de Mayo 3era parte.

Dr. Sandoval arrives safe and sound in Canada/ Dra. Sandoval llega sana y salva a Canadá

First Day at Allandale Veterinary Hospital:
Today was an exciting day, my first full day at the clinic. It was a slow day, so I got a chance to see how they run some lab test like preanesthesia, heart worm test, hematology test, etc.
Tomorrow will join Dr. Lechten on an Tv apperance, on the Animal Housecalls show.

Primer día en Allandale Veterinary Hospital:
Hoy fue un día emocionante, era mi primer día completo en el hospital.
No hubieron muchos pacientes, así que pude ver como llevan a cabo algunas pruebas de laboratorio, como exámenes preanestesicos, toma de muestra para verificar la presencia del parasito de corazón en perros, hematológicas, etc.
El dia de mañana acompañare a la Dra. Lechten en un programa de televisión.

The beauty of volunteering and being bilingual

This is the first blog from one of the Guatemalan veterinarians who volunteered with Veterinarian without Borders-Canada in Todos Santos, on Feb 2013. During that time, she made a connection with the people from Allandale Veterinary Hospital, and as a result she was invited to go to Canada for a one-month practicum.
With the help of Allandale Veterinary Hospital and Veterinarians without Borders-Canada, Dr. Heidi Sandoval was able to make her long-standing dream into a reality. Here is her first blog…

“It is 4:15 am and I just arrived at La Aurora International Airport. Just left my 2 boys and husband about 20 minutes ago. I will see them in 34 days.
Today I fly to Toronto, Canada, where Dr. Lechten will host me at her clinic, Allandale Veterinary Hospital for a month.
Definitely this will be a challenge for me and a great opportunity to learn and receive training.
After a 14 hour trip I arrived at Toronto, will meet tomorrow with Dr. Lechten”.
Heidi Sandoval



Guatemala seen through Dr. Lechten’s eyes….

It has been a few weeks since we left Todos Santos, Guatemala.  It was a wonderful experience and I can’t wait to go back next year.  Natalie and Melissa did a great job talking about our day to day experiences, so I am going to use my blog to just give some general observations.

Canadian and Guatemalan doctors working for a common cause, in Todos Santos, Guatemala
Todos Santos is a beautiful village.  It is surrounded by mountains which are covered in plots used for farming.  We were told that the people can be somewhat suspicious of strangers.  However, overall we found everyone to be very open and welcoming.  Despite the language barrier, we were able to make a connection with many people.  The villagers that brought their pets for care were grateful to be able to provide their pets with surgery and/or vaccines.  The pets may not have been cared for in the same way that many of our pets are, but they were absolutely loved.  There were people that walked substantial distances while leading their dogs, carrying their cats in bags, corralling small children and carrying babies on their backs.  These people then filled out paperwork and patiently waited their turn.  Rabies vaccines were given on a first come, first serve basis.  Surgeries were by appointment, but that still didn’t eliminate waiting.  Since many people had walked a fair distance with their dog for surgery, they watched the surgery, and then waited while their pet recovered enough to be able to walk home.  For many people this meant spending the entire day.  And yet, there was never a complaint.  Instead it was a joyous atmosphere – children playing, people chatting, everyone milling about and watching surgery.  Many people stopped by simply to see what was going on.  School children in particular enjoyed the opportunity to watch surgery.
A proud owner with his two dogs
There were several dogs that had been coming for years – Junior the Dalmatian, Terry the Rottweiller.  They were well cared for and the owners were quite proud of their pets.  There were a few dogs and cats that were thin, but the owners were quite open to discussions of how to provide better care for their pets.  In most cases, the pets eat what the owners do – tortillas, potatoes, a bit of meat.  Dogs and cats do not really provide any meaningful benefit to their families other than companionship.  And yet, people who have very little themselves share with their dogs and cats.  That is obviously a sign of how much they love their pets.

We provided new collars and leashes to all dogs that had surgery.  Unfortunately we did not have enough to provide collars for the vaccine patients.  Collars are very important as many dogs run free.  Dogs and cats without collars are thought to be strays so are often poisoned. We are planning to have a collar/leash drive prior to next year’s trip in the hopes that we can provide every pet that visits with at least a new collar.
We worked hard and lived simply while we were in Todos Santos.  It was a good reminder to be grateful for everything we have.  Our rooms were cold at night as Guatemalans (even in larger cities) generally do not heat their homes.  Our showers were in a shared washroom and were often chilly.  And our meals were eaten outside on a rooftop terrace (sounds romantic, but is actually quite cold at 7 in the morning or 8 at night).  However, we got to come home to comfy houses with hot showers.  The food we had while in Todos Santos was delicious.  We ate three healthy meals per day and didn’t overeat as we tend to do at home. Again, a good lesson that I wish I was better at sticking to.

Overall I can’t say enough about our experience with Veterinarians Without Borders, the new friends we made, the people of Todos Santos and the animals we helped.  I feel very blessed that I was able to contribute to improving the lives of people and their pets.  The visits to Todos Santos have a tremendous impact.  The incidence of rabies in animals and people is being reduced, the number of strays is being reduced and pets are healthier.  I can’t wait to go again next year and hopefully we can do even more!

-Dr. Patricia Lechten