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How veterinary volunteerism has shaped my career

INSTAGRAM @samyra.jamie   
Samyra Stuart-Altman graduated in 2012 and has been working at a bustling mixed animal practice in Manitoba, Canada ever since. She has a professional interest in ultrasonography, and loves to work up challenging medical cases. Her passion for animal welfare and veterinary volunteerism has taken her on adventures near and far. In her spare time she creates custom animal portraits and enjoys travelling to see live music.

When I graduated from veterinary school in 2012, I was catapulted straight into my career in mixed animal practice. I, along with every new graduate, was endlessly preoccupied with the goal of becoming an excellent veterinarian, while hopefully not making a fool of myself in the process.

Though I was very confident and comfortable in my role as a new doctor, it would be at least three years until I fully realized my true calling. My life’s work, as it turns out, would be my dedication to veterinary volunteerism. And if you only read to the end of this paragraph, I am here to tell you one thing: It is never to early, nor is it too late, to get involved with veterinary volunteerism.

When we first graduate, many of us feel like we can’t contribute to the veterinary community. We feel like we are too new, too fresh out of school, and lacking the technical skills required to make a difference. I admit that at one time, I thought that volunteer spay/neuter clinics and community outreach events were only seeking seasoned pros and that I couldn’t possibly be of value to their cause. And if we are being completely honest, I was too intimidated to venture into the volunteer world anyway. Well here I am again, ready to dispel that myth for you, to all the ambitious new grads. The community needs you and all that you have to contribute. This is advice I wish could have been imparted on me when I graduated and so I take great care in passing this on to the next generation of veterinarians.

Over the years, my involvement with various volunteer organizations has taken me on my most memorable adventures. If you were to gauge the diversity of my experiences by the modes of transportation that I have used, then the following list is quite telling: planes, trains, snowmobiles, golf carts, boats, and a dogsled. My first foray into a volunteer role was as a veterinarian for a dogsled race called the Hudson Bay Quest. The trip took me on a week long experience in the northern tundra, ending in the town of Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capital of the world. I provided veterinary care for fifteen dog teams, each team consisting of ten dogs, as they raced through the wilderness. I spent most of my time in a remote trapper’s cabin, with no electricity or plumbing, and the most illuminating display of northern lights. Seven years later, I am still a volunteer veterinarian with the Hudson Bay Quest, and I have ascended the ranks to become one of the head veterinarians.

After my first year with the Hudson Bay Quest, my eyes were opened to an entire world of veterinary volunteerism. I was hooked. I immediately sought out new opportunities to volunteer. I reached out to a local rescue group that was starting to work with remote northern communities. We developed a great working relationship and since then have been able to provide countless spay/neuter clinics, vaccine clinics, and remote veterinary care. Many of these communities are so remote that they are only accessible via plane, ferry, and winter roads. Logistics can be challenging and most of our surgeries occur in a gymnasium into the wee hours of the night, but the results are indisputable. This is also the perfect time to mention the indescribable feelings of welcoming we receive from the communities that host our veterinary team. And not to mention the amazing meals we eat, while in the communities, from moose meat stew, fresh bannock, shepherd’s pie, and peppermint tea. The only thing warmer than the hot food delivered to our remote clinic is the spirit of the community residents themselves.

You may be starting to think that all volunteer activities must occur in cold and remote locations, but fear not! I am here to tell you that you can find volunteer opportunities close to home or even in a tropical location.

Some of my most enjoyable weekends have been spent volunteering locally. On Thanksgiving Sunday, my amazing clinic team spayed and neutered 24 cats belonging to low-income families. We ordered pizza and called it “ThanksFixing.” I also routinely work with One Health initiatives to provide veterinary care for homeless, vulnerably housed or street-involved pet owners. I am of the firm belief that social status does not dictate one’s deservedness of pet ownership and the human animal bond. And so being able to celebrate the human-animal bond as an integral part of maintaining mental health and wellness, is such an honor. I have also had the pleasure of working with Isla Animals in Mexico for the past three years, as a volunteer surgeon for their spay and neuter campaigns. Last year we spayed and neutered 1847 dogs and cats in six days.

My experiences with veterinary volunteerism have been surprisingly diverse. I have learned so many personal and professional lessons on my adventures. And not only that, I have made so many friends, all over the world. Just imagine having a network of colleagues from North America, Mexico, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, that you can call upon at any moment for advice or a quick hello. If it sounds pretty great, let me assure you that it is.

As veterinarians, we are naturally inclined to embrace our inner student, because we are life-long learners and our passion runs deep. Whether you are a new grad, or a seasoned pro, I hope to broaden your horizons and open your eyes to opportunities that took me years to accidentally stumble upon. I want to remove any barriers to volunteerism I can by simply making it known that these opportunities are accessible to you. We need great people like you to join us locally and in remote communities. And with that, I will leave you with my final message: I look forward to meeting you on my next adventure.

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