Hands-on volunteer trip to remote Guatemalan villagesleaves meaningful imprint for this dedicated veterinarian

Dr. Sandy Willis, a Mukilteo veterinarian, fits a sleepy dog with its new collar while an AYUDA volunteer steadies the newly sterilized animal.
Willis listens to the heart and lungs while monitoring a dog under anesthesia while Dr. Melissa McPherron performs neuter surgery.
Santa Cruz children proudly show off their two sleepy dogs post surgery.
Willis with her suitcase full of supplies donated by caring people in Washington state. Everything left over from the clinics, including the suitcase, was left behind for other pets after the clinics.
A crowd peers in through the window as the World Vets surgeons sterilize dogs.
This elderly San Marcos native cradles her beloved, sleepy little dog in leaves after picking it up from the clinic following surgery.

By Ranny Green

For years, Dr. Sandy Willis, a veterinary internal medicine consultant at Phoenix Central Lab., Inc., in Mukilteo, has been on the diagnostic end of treatment for Puget Sound area pets but has missed the contact with animals and their owners in the process.

“Although I do feel I help owners and their pets, I have wanted to be in the trenches helping them as well,” she says. Earlier this year she finally got a taste of that hands-on care – in Guatemala.

On her bucket list was joining a veterinary relief effort, “not a lab geek avoiding the odd immersion oil spill but a ‘real vet’ using a stethoscope, needles and medications working on live animals,” she said in a feature story appearing recently in the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association’s Insight magazine.

She was asked by Dr. Stacy Steele, a veterinarian and owner of Ocean Shores Veterinary Hospital, to accompany her and 13 others on a World Vets trip April 21-29 to the Lake Atitlan area of Guatemala, where two spay-and-neuter clinics were done in a small mountain village of Santa Cruz (originally settled in 1540 and accessible only by foot or by boat) and another in San Marcos, a small Mayan village hugging the lake shores and also chiefly reached by boat.

Famed English novelist Aldous Huxley, when visiting Atitlan in the 1930s called it “the most beautiful lake in the world.” The Mayan word Atitlan means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors.”

Headquarted in Fargo, N.D., World Vets develops, implements and manages international veterinary and disaster relief programs to 36 countries on six continents, working in partnership with animal-welfare groups, foreign governments, agriculture and public-health officials along with veterinary professionals. It provides free veterinary care through a volunteer base of 3,600 individuals like Willis, combined with financial support and supply donations.

Willis’ team worked with a host nonprofit animal-welfare program called AYUDA, For the Health of Dogs and Cats, in the Guatemalan highlands. AYUDA publicized the clinics and signed up owners and pets before the group arrived. Willis traveled with a full suitcase, filled with donated medical supplies, leashes/collars and toys from area veterinary practices, pet stores and the Phoenix lab staff.

“We knew roughly each day how many pets we would have,” she says. “But there were walk-ins and some stray dogs that greeted us on the street were simply picked up and brought to the clinics, too. The majority were small.” The clinics were housed in local classrooms, with five surgery tables occupied nonstop. Separate areas were designated for reception, anesthesia induction, surgery, instrument sterilization and recovery.

“I neutered one dog,” she continued, “but quickly fell into an important role and one more suited to my skills as an internist of monitoring the dogs and cats while they were under anesthesia. That involved securing each patient to the surgery table, preparing additional injectable anesthetic for use with the IV catheter and assisting the surgeon during surgery.” For each trip, there are spots for veterinarians (the surgeons), technicians and assistants.

“My favorite images are of the older native women dressed in the traditional brightly colored Mayan dresses cradling their slightly sleepy dogs in banana leaves,” Willis recalls.

The group was housed in a hotel in the town of Panajachel and rode a water taxi to both villages in the morning, returning via the same means in the evening.

Each day the team headed out in scrubs and met volunteers en route. “The townspeople were very nice, and would help us move supplies, along with the volunteers, generally expatriates from countries such as the U.S., England, Australia, etc., who ran the organization we worked with,“ she adds.

In addition to sterilization surgery, most animals were dewormed, vaccinated and all went home with colorful new collars and leashes.

At Santa Cruz, a local culinary program operated by young students, prepared the World Vets team with lunch. In San Marcos, they nibbled from a lunch table brimming with goodies provided by locals.

While the focus of the trip is treating the pets, it is also designed to provide volunteers with an international experience, i.e. sightseeing, dining at local restaurants, interacting with street vendors and store managers and enjoying local music and art.

“We had ample time to explore Panajachel. We also kayaked our first day at Lake Atitlan and visited the small village of San Juan, learning of their culture and buying artwork and fabrics. On our way to Lake Atitlan, we explored the historic town of Antiqua. Three of us also toured Guatemala City for a day and took a flight to the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal,” says Willis.

She and the other volunteers paid for their trip and airfare. The expense provides a volunteer kit, World Vets scrub top, pre-trip planning and coordination, accommodations for seven nights, airport transfers, ground transportation related to clinic duties, lunches on clinic work days, veterinary permits and supplies. Optional excursions are not included, but the host group provided one day’s sightseeing, kayaking, swimming and lunch.

The experience whetted Willis’ appetite for more adventure and fun with her peers. “We were such a cohesive group, balancing fun and work, that we discussed doing another, perhaps in the fall of 2013,” she concluded. “Guatemala is breathtakingly beautiful but the people and their culture was a reason to visit in addition, of course, to providing veterinary medical support. We as Americans get very centered on ourselves and our way of life. It is an important experience for all to visit another country, walk reverently and just observe.”

While the experience proved highly fulfilling for Willis, the enlightening first-hand view of a foreign culture’s appreciation of companion animals and the incredible bonding of a veterinary team of strangers at work and play will serve as nuggets for a lifetime.