Volunteering in India rekindled my career

When I graduated in 2018, the reality of having had to use my holidays for placements meant I had no funds to cover a longed-for trip to India. I shelved the idea and took a role in farm practice.

My first 16 months in practice were full of highs and lows. I loved being out in the fresh air, exploring the beautiful countryside, but there was a growing part of me that yearned for something more than long days spent bovine TB testing.

I felt increasingly dissatisfied with the clinical limitations of large animal work. I had lost sight of the reason why I had wanted to be a vet and felt disillusioned with the job I had once been so passionate about.

Working in a small team gave me ample opportunity to learn and take on cases and responsibilities and I learned fast. But after TB testing thousands of animals, driving hundreds of miles and experiencing broken fingers that required two trips to A&E, small animal practice seemed an appealing option. But first I needed to make that trip to India.

I spent hours planning and researching my options for volunteering. I looked for places that provided accommodation, had busy vaccination and neutering programmes, and were located in areas I wanted to explore on my days off. I arranged to volunteer formally at two charities – Dharamsala  Animal Rescue (DAR) in Himachal Pradesh and Help in Suffering (HIS) in Jaipur – totalling about seven weeks of work. I also made contact with a few other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that I planned to visit on a casual basis.

After I arrived in India, I didn’t have to wait long for my first taste of veterinary work. I spent a couple of days at a small NGO in Rishikesh and realised the adventure had well and truly begun when we had to do a bitch spay by the light of a head torch because of a power outage.

I then made my way to the small Himalayan village of Rakkar for my placement at the DAR. The fresh mountain air and beautiful countryside were a stark contrast to the noise and pollution of Delhi, which had been my arrival city.

My accommodation was provided by a local family who welcomed me into their home and way of life. Evenings spent around a clay fire eating traditional homegrown food was a humbling experience and helped me engage with the community. I spent much of my free time in a cafe in the village where I quickly became known as the vet: you can’t escape being asked questions over dinner wherever you are in the world. Looking at the wounds of a dog that visited for scraps, advising on vaccination and worming when a young girl took on a puppy, and trying to rehome dogs with local families made me feel that my work as a volunteer extended to the community and I fell back in love with being a vet.

Holly Hills in India

With Suraj, one of DAR's permanent residents

Day-to-day life was varied. It began with inpatient treatments and a dog walk. After that, anything could happen! We responded to phone calls from locals who alerted us about dogs in need of veterinary care, often in small, remote villages and towns. Without diagnostic equipment, developing treatment plans was a challenge and meant prioritising what was important.

My lack of small animal experience made me doubt how much I would be able to do for these dogs, but with the support of the charity’s permanent local vet, I learned quickly. We were able to share our different sets of knowledge, ideas, experience and perspectives, and it was a joy to learn and work alongside each other.

'It was a baptism of fire and an invaluable way of developing my surgical skills'

In Jaipur, HIS provided accommodation on site, as well as delicious local food. Mornings were spent working with the team, neutering and vaccinating up to 25 dogs as part of the charity’s animal birth control programme. It was a baptism of fire and an invaluable way of developing my surgical skills. Afternoons were spent in the treatment room caring for sick and injured dogs that arrived around the clock.

For me, the highlight was joining the dog catch team for the early morning trip to the outskirts of the city where we collected dogs for neutering that day. Watching the sunrise, chai in hand, while local people ate breakfast in the morning light was captivating. The experience helped me understand the importance of organisations like HIS in the wider community and gave me context to the injuries and illnesses I was seeing in the clinic.

At both clinics, the caseload was mostly trauma – fractures, wounds and spinal injuries from road traffic accidents. We saw puppies with parvovirus and distemper on a daily basis. Tickborne disease was also common. Generally, dogs would present in far more advanced stages of injury or disease than we are used to seeing in the UK, which was emotionally challenging.

Holly Hills surgery

Making a difference

Having only basic medications, and without diagnostic facilities, I had to rely on clinical examination, basic knowledge and skills. I learned quickly to do the best I could with what I had. It has made me a more adaptable and creative clinician.

Street dogs are incredibly resilient. I was surprised every day by what they coped with and recovered from. There were, of course, many dogs that we couldn’t do anything for, but this motivated me to do my best for those I could help.

While volunteering, I realised there is more to being a vet than I perhaps ever realised. I was able to develop my skills and returned to the UK with more confidence and a fresh perspective – something I remind myself of daily.

'I developed my skills and returned to the UK with more confidence and a fresh perspective'

I had experienced the feeling of reward and satisfaction that I had been searching for, knowing I’d made a small contribution to the work of some of India’s NGOs.

Although I had to return home early because of Covid-19, I feel happy and fulfilled in my career and continue to use and develop the skills I gained.

I now work at a lovely small animal practice within a passionate and supportive team. I continue to support DAR as a rescue ambassador and write blog posts and articles for its website. Once travel is safely allowed again, I intend to promote its volunteering programme to others who may be able to help. I also volunteer with the social media and communications team of Vet Sustain (www.vetsustain.org).

I hope to return to India one day and will forever be grateful for what I gained from my time there. I wholeheartedly recommend that anyone thinking about volunteering abroad should go for it – you won’t have any regrets.

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