I am a final year vet student and with the help of Principal’s Go Abroad Fund I was able to go to Panama for 2 weeks to volunteer with Spay Panama. I wanted to join a spay project to improve my surgical skills and to also make a small difference to the huge global stray animal problem.
I arrived in Panama City and was initially nervous because my Spanish was limited to “Yes”, “No” and “Toilet” as well as the universal language of moronically trying to mime what I meant. My nerves weren’t helped by the questioning airport staff as to where my parents were… apparently in Central America I look like a 13 year old.
We were sleeping in the office of the clinic, which had a million rescue cats – you couldn’t sit anywhere without becoming a cat cushion! There was also a kitten room – what a terrible place to be.
My first day was such an experience. Imagine a conveyor belt of anaesthetised animals moving to surgery. I was lucky in that my friend had been here for a couple of days already so could show me the ropes! Not everyone at the clinic spoke English but we managed to get by. That first day we spent most of our time in the prep area where we got the animals ready for surgery.
Every afternoon we were taken out sight-seeing to various parts of the city where we learnt about the history. The original city (which today is ruins) was destroyed when a Welsh pirate, Captain Morgan, attacked in 1670. The city was then rebuilt in a different area, Casco Viejo, which has beautiful architecture with French, Spanish and neoclasssical influences – it feels like you are in Europe! That was my favourite part of the city.
We joined a team of vets and volunteers away on a Spay drive weekend. We set up a mobile operating theatre in a school playground. Over the weekend 638 animals were neutered by nine vets and two students. My friend and I were responsible for all the cat and puppy castrates as we had been doing them all week at the clinic. The vets were incredibly efficient and skilled surgeons; spays were performed through a keyhole sized incision in under ten minutes. Locals from the area provided us with refreshments – a life saver in that heat!
After that weekend we started performing more complex surgeries and moved on from castrates to spays – which involve opening up the abdominal cavity. We have had surgical training back home but a different technique is used here. We were surrounded by help from vets if we needed it. I really improved my surgical skills and became more confident in my ability. By the end of the week I felt accomplished, even though the other vets could perform an entire operation in the time it took me to stitch up!
The hardest thing was getting used to metal suture material which is not used in the UK. It is used here because it is strong and cheap, but it is incredibly difficult when you are dealing with paper thin kitten skin. My scariest moment was when I had a bleed during one of my spays. I called for a vet and I will never forget his calm manner and reassuring words, “Claire, why are you panicking? You are in a room with 8 vets!”. By the time he had put on gloves the bleeding had stopped and so had my heart attack!