My Summer Externship in Uganda

This summer I had the opportunity to work in Uganda (the “Pearl of Africa”) with local veterinarian, Dr. David Hyeroba. To say that living in East Africa was an incredible experience would be an understatement. Even writing this feels like I am doing it an injustice. There is simply no way to capture the feelings, smells and experiences on paper. However, I can try. Being immersed in such a deeply rooted culture, not having hot water (or water at all sometimes), minimal electricity... There is something very raw about living in minimal conditions like that. The simplicity forces you to appreciate every little thing and not be distracted by excess. It brings forth an awareness that is often lost in the stress-driven, crazy lives that we lead in the United States. I loved every second of it.

Dr. Hyeroba runs a primarily small animal clinic out of his house called the Community Animal Health Centre. This clinic is one of the projects supported by the Silent Heroes Foundation. We did house calls all day almost every day and I was able to see things I never would have seen back home. For instance, we treated a dog with brucellosis, saw rabies, distemper and infectious canine hepatitis, to name a few. We saw dogs bitten by venomous snakes, such as cobras. In fact, we happened to stumble on a Gaboon viper late one night while leaving a client’s house (thankfully, no one was bitten). We even came home one evening to find someone with a goat tethered on their truck bed waiting for us. The diversity and volume of cases made every day new and exciting, and kept me on my toes! I scrubbed in to every surgery we did, and by the end of the summer I was able to perform my own castrations. In general, supplies are limited, and gas anesthesia for veterinary use is not readily available. This took some adjusting for me but in the end I became very comfortable with it and even realized that there are several benefits, especially for this type of an environment. There is only one functional x-ray machine in all of Uganda, and it is at the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), the local zoo, and therefore not available for small animal practitioners. There are also no veterinary specialists in Africa; as a veterinarian you have to be able to do everything on your own. We performed several orthopedic surgeries, such as a femoral head osteotomy and the remodeling of a deformed forelimb in a stray. Dr. Hyeroba had spent several years as the main veterinarian at UWEC so once we were called in to work on a lioness. This was relatively soon after I arrived for the summer, and it was surreal to be leaning over a lion taking her heart rate and respirations, and cleaning her wounds. It was beyond amazing. While at the zoo, I was also able to see a baby elephant and some chimpanzees in quarantine.

Some of the most rewarding work we did was at a sustainable Catholic orphanage called Kyasira Home of Hope. Located on the shores of Lake Victoria in Entebbe, the sisters were incredibly welcoming and even sent us home with fresh cassava! This was customary with most of our clients. I met some truly incredible people and it was so nice to get to know the clients. The orphanage had at least 15 dogs that patrol the crop fields and protect the food from monkeys. The children that stay there are very friendly and helpful. In particular, there were a few boys who loved their dogs tremendously, and assisted us in the surgeries. In Uganda, it is not part of the native culture to treat dogs as members of the family like we do here in the States. It is common for most households to own a dog, or at least take claim over a resident stray, but this is primarily for protective purposes. It was important to me to try to instill a sense of connection between our local clients and their dogs. Not only does this increase the chances that they will provide proper care for them, but it also gives the dogs more reason to protect their owners. After all, dogs do not protect strangers.

Apart from gaining veterinary experience in a developing country, I conducted my own small research project. It originally started as a survey of the tick-borne bacteria, ehrlichia, in the dog population. However, it evolved into a general survey of the types of blood-borne parasites, specifically in dogs surrounding the national parks (due to their interaction with primates), and close proximity to livestock. We sampled approximately 110 dogs and found not only ehrlichia, but anaplasma, dirofilaria and trypanosomes as well. These initial diagnoses were made using donated 4DX snap tests I brought with me to Uganda as well as by microscopy (blood smear, buffy coat, etc.). We are currently in the process of running PCR here in the next few weeks on all the samples.

I had the good fortune about halfway through my stay to spend a few days in the Ruhengeri Mountains in Rwanda with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP). MGVP is another organization supported by the Silent Heroes Foundation. Dr. Jan Ramer hosted Drs. Hayley Adams and Innocent Rwego, and myself at their headquarters. The trip was a childhood dream come true. I tracked the Susa mountain gorilla group one day and spent the rest of the time touring Rwanda and learning about the gorillas. They had several juvenile Grauer's gorillas in quarantine after they had been confiscated from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A large part of my summer was spent learning how political influence dictates the majority of wildlife veterinary work. It is one of the necessary evils, but it is much more evident in these African countries, especially surrounding the issue of the endangered gorillas andchimpanzees. It was not onlygratifying to be involved in this type of logistical veterinary work, but it also instilled in me a desire to get a Master of Public Health. So much of what the wildlife veterinarians do in rural Africa focuses on the interface between humans and animals, particularly in disease prevention and control. The conservation and public health situation in most of Africa can be depressing and discouraging, but it did feel as though we made progress. We helped write a chimpanzee protocol for one of the national parks in Uganda, which will hopefully be adopted by the Uganda Wildlife Authority and be implemented in their ecotourism to provide a better situation for both the tourists and the chimpanzees. 

Overall, it was an incredible and indescribable experience. Some parts were difficult, that is true: the political instability and government corruption is not hidden at all, the riots were ongoing, poverty is everywhere and the sanitation is less than ideal. But there is something very real about living and working in Africa. I truly loved my time there and I am so thankful for the opportunities I had and the people I was surrounded with. I am eagerly looking forward to my return to Africa.

Photos by Chelsea Anderson