— GRANADA, NICARAGUA — The German Shepherd staggered into the veterinary clinic. A large bandana wrapped around her belly hung low, almost touching the ground.
The dog, named Lassi, winced as veterinarians checked her body, her cries suppressed with a muzzle. When the veterinarians removed the bandana, they discovered a ruptured 5-pound tumor.
“When Lassi suffers, I suffer,” said the dog’s owner, Ana Goussen. “I was going to have her put down even though it would hurt from the bottom of my heart.”
Instead, Lassi was saved by veterinarians at this new surgical clinic in Nicaragua operated by World Vets, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Fargo, N.D.
Since 2006, the once-small nonprofit has grown into an international organization that has administered thousands of emergency surgeries conducted by volunteer veterinarians in developing countries. World Vets also responds to need during international crises, from rescuing stranded pets in flood-ravaged Thailand to scouring debris for animals that survived the 2011 earthquake in Japan.
“We started out with nothing — just the vision that veterinarians from all over the U.S. could help on projects,” said Cathy King, a veterinarian who started World Vets with a donation jar at her clinic in Deer Park, a small town in eastern Washington state.
“It just grew from there and three years later became a full-time job for me," added King, who earns about $82,000 a year, according to federal tax records. "Now we send out a team almost every week of the year.”
The work, funded by donations and grants, benefits pets, but also a wide range of animals, such as elephants in Asia, horses in Central America and military dogs in Iraq. World Vets runs on a $2 million annual budget, about half of which is in-kind product donations like veterinary medicine and equipment.
More than 3,500 people have volunteered for the organization in 36 countries around the world.
All volunteers pay their own travel expenses, so donations go toward running the programs, King said.
Training international vets
In Nicaragua, World Vets opened the first clinic in its new International Veterinary Medicine Program, which will train hundreds of veterinarians and veterinary students from across the globe.
Located in a small suburb of Granada, the Surgical Training Center looks like a typical home, save the red-and-black World Vets sign hanging above the front porch.
Nicaraguan veterinarians trained by World Vets run the center, which opened last November. For eight months of the year, the center provides training for Latin American students. Between May and August, the program offers hands-on immersion in international veterinary medicine for North American and European students.
“In all the time we’ve been out here doing this work, we’ve had a lot of local vet students interested in learning who weren’t getting a lot of surgical instruction in school,” King said. “We decided that in order to maximize our impact we would put a focus on training.”
The training center and international program, like World Vets field projects, are self-sufficient.
Western students will pay to participate in the summer sessions and the money from their tuition will pay for Latin American students during the year. Animals brought in for classes will also get spayed or neutered for free, continuing to help curb animal overpopulation in Nicaragua.
“That is the beautiful part about this program,” said Claudio Mayorga, general manager of the Surgical Training Center. “The Latin American students pay absolutely nothing to participate in the training sessions. This training, if not part of a self-sufficient program, would be very expensive.”
Mayorga said the clinic and training sessions will develop better veterinarians in Nicaragua.
“Veterinarians in Nicaragua have all the knowledge to perform surgeries but don’t have the practice,” he said. “Not all of the universities in this country have a surgery room with all the equipment necessary. This clinic meets those necessities.”
In March, a group of 11 volunteers from the U.S. traveled to the training center in Granada as part of a World Vets field project, providing free spay/neuter services and other medical treatments for dogs and cats.
Karen Allum, a veterinarian from Norristown, Pa., said the new facility is great for American veterinary students still learning to do surgery. World Vets teams don’t usually get to work on real operating tables and in real clinics during field projects, she said.
“We’ve done surgery in a fire station, a Catholic church, an abandoned sweatshop and on basketball courts — often times without water or electricity,” Allum said. “The way this clinic is set up pretty closely mimics what the senior surgery students will operate from in their vet schools.”
Tori Hall, a veterinary student at University of Mississippi, said she participated in the World Vets field project in Granada because being in school for so long made her lose focus about why she wanted to be a veterinarian. Getting hand-on experience with World Vets reinvigorated her love for veterinary medicine, she said.
“I think we made a lot of really big impact on some animals’ lives,” Hall said. “I’ve learned more in this week than in the last semester of surgery lab at school.”
For Lassi, the German Shepherd with the massive tumor, the veterinarians were literally life-saving. Without surgery, the ruptured tumor could easily have become infected. Instead, the dog left the clinic the next day, walking on her own.
“Nicaragua is a very poor country, so many people don’t have the money to treat dogs like Lassi because the operations are too expensive,” Goussen said. “Thanks to God and to World Vets, I still have my pretty dog.”
One of King’s long-term visions for World Vets is to open training centers in different regions of the world. Once the
Granada program is fine-tuned and running smoothly, she would like to open up similar centers in Africa and parts of Asia.
For more information about World Vets, visit the agency's website.