Red dirt in the NT

 

The two weeks I spent in the Northern Territory of Australia were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So many of these moments were new and fascinating.  I was pretty excited to get out of chilly chilly Victoria and get outside into some warm winter weather. As soon as our small plane touched down at Galuwin’ku airport we felt the heat!

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How could you not love this landscape?!

Three of us traveled to the remote Elcho island off the Northern coast of Aus for 2 weeks to be part of a council based Animal Management Program. There is a large amount of community dogs and cats that live in Galuwin’ku (the largest community on Elcho island). The majority of our work was spay and neuter surgeries and distribution of dewormer medication.

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This was one particularly friendly dog that met us on the beach one day and followed us home 🙂 

After we first landed we did a little tour of the community and drove past some of the main buildings.  After a few minutes we came across a group of people standing by a dog on the side of the road. He had been hit by a car and was not looking good. We asked if the people wanted us to ‘finish’ him (euthanasia).  In the evening we went to walk by the beach; you can’t go close to the water because it is full of crocodiles. The sunset was amazing. We heard a dog crying and found her laying in a stand of trees in the vines. She was old and riddled with ticks and mites. She belonged to a nearby family who I think moved the dog down to the beach because she had been sick and crying for days. I had never considered how difficult it might be for families to get rid of a dog or euthanize an animal who is sick if there are no vet services around.

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The ‘clinic’ and the ute that we used for all our veterinary work

No one on the island wakes up early; this means that we got to very casually wake up, eat breakfast, and leave the house around 9am… 9:30am…whenever. We often stopped in at the ‘clinic’ (a trailer) and picked up a few things we needed. Then we would drive slowly through the community and stop at family homes and ask them if there was any dogs or cats for ‘operation’ (the term for de-sexing surgery). We would sedate the dogs with their pre-medication drugs at their houses and allow them to get sleepy before loading them into the ute. Children would run and catch the cats for us to put into carriers. At the clinic there was two tables to do surgeries on; you either had to bend over or sit in a chair. One table required you to stack 2 chairs & a pillow on top of each other to be at the right height. There was a desk lamp for added light. We made a makeshift scavenger system for ourselves. The surgical instruments are kept in a saucepan and boiled on the stove each night. Gauze is baked in a canister in the oven. Instruments are scrubbed and sterilized in cold sterile between each surgery. We made swaged on needles as we needed them.  Anesthetic monitoring was done with an SPO2 monitor and our stethoscopes. Each wound was sprayed with Cetrigen purple spray after surgery and dogs received flea spray for a day of relief. All the spays are completed as flank spays: this is because they likely heal faster, if the wound breaks down there is less chance of evisceration, a lot of the patients are either pregnant or lactating and you do not want to disturb the mammary tissue, and its easier to recheck the surgery site from afar. A lot of the animals will remember you and not want to come near you afterwards. Us students got to do almost all of the surgeries by ourselves which was SUCH good experience, and really cool because I got a lot of practice doing the less common flank spays.

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A typical surgical morning.

Occasionally we would do other vet work. We did a couple of new puppy & kitten exams, checked out a lump on a dog, stitched up a dog who had been gorged by a pig, and checked a cat with tail injury.  But, by far, the most thrilling call was—Nigel. Nigel’s family thought he had broken his leg and our whole team was very distressed as we rushed over to his house! Luckily….he must have just stepped on a prickle  and he was totally fine & just as cool as ever.

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Nigel with his mum and his brand new collar!

In Aboriginal communities, especially in a climate like where we were, when someone passes away in the Wet (season) the body cannot be buried because of the humidity and the rain. The body is flown to Darwin where it is held in a morgue until the Dry (season) when it can be returned to the community for a funeral ceremony & burial. Dumbulah is an out station approximately 10 mins from where we were staying. We were invited to watch the funeral ceremony. Funerals can last for days to weeks; they happen for every person who passes away in the community—because of the associated health issues in aboriginal communities, funerals occur fairly often. As we walked closer to the community we could hear singing. When we arrived we saw a few hand painted cloth signs hanging up. The biggest sign was on white cloth, with bright green writing—’ Welcome Home’. Other signs said ‘rest in peace our loving father’, etc. The man’s name was painted.  There was 3 trees as flag poles for the territory flag, the Australian flag, and a third- they all flew at half mast. We sat on the dirt a little ways away and watched some of the singing and dancing. After a short time, a family invited us to come and sit on their mat with them. A lady on our mat explained to us that 2 different clans would sing/dance the next song (I think it was about a sunfish) one after each other. They had differently painted digeridoos.  This was such a valuable life experience for me; I sat there mesmerized for quite a long time.

We had a short meeting with some of the human medical team one morning to talk about a research project that is being run on the island. The medical team is swabbing mothers, children, and infants at certain households to look at skin infections (likely staph/strep). Our job was to take swabs from the dogs who lived at the house as well. The study required swabs from nose, mouth, and perineum.

Most nights we stopped at the beach on the way home to watch the sunset over the water. We would go for walks along the rocks close to the water or sit in a freshwater pool that was a safe distance from the ocean.

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Jess and I woke up early a few mornings to go for a walk on the beach or the road above the ocean to look for crocs or dugongs before breakfast. It was really lovely. We never saw a dugong, but we did see a crocodile!

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Our fantastic team, we got along swimmingly, and I think all of us grew a bigger spot in our hearts for Aboriginal culture and the NT. 

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‘Watch me snip snip, watch me neuter’

I’m on my way back to Australia right now; sitting in LAX (my least favorite airport) and killing 9 hours.

Yesterday I finished off a 2 week placement at Tri-Municipal and Meridian vet clinics. They are a mixed animal practice–with the majority being small animal work.

Throughout the week I followed doctors into dog and cat consults. Often I would just listen but sometimes I was involved in the discussion of the case. I  also did my own physical exams and administered vaccines and dewormer to the patient.

Early in the first week I got a chance to try my hand at a cat neuter.  This is a relatively ‘easy’ surgery in small animal medicine—you still have to go to school for a lot of years to get to do it though!  There is a few different techniques and I wanted to try them all.

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I made sure to practice on this string with a knot in the end… I probably castrated it about 18 times. #poorstring

We diagnosed a textbook case of demodicosis.   This is a skin disease caused by a little mite that lives in the skin and can cause a dog to be itchy and lose patches of hair. You can find the mite by looking at a sample under the microscope. This was interesting for me because it is not an overly common disease. As well, quite often you can diagnose a patient with the disease without ever finding the little bug! This particular case presented an interesting opportunity for research to determine if this animal was safe to breed. There is a concern that this could be passed on to future puppies.

My favourite calls this week were the cattle calls. The first one turned out to be a bit of an emergency— we were called to a farm who had a cow with an episiotomy. Unfortunately the cow was bleeding out and the vet had to rush in and suture her up! I hear she is doing great!

We also went to a couple of small hobby farms to do some preg-checking. Yes, this is one of the times where vets stick their arm up cow butts to see what they can feel. It was nice to be on a small farm for these appointments because it allowed us to go a bit slower.  I palpated each cow after the vet and gave my own diagnosis of pregnant vs open (not pregnant).  You can diagnose this based on what the uterus feels like. I need more practice before I can really start being specific about weeks of gestation.

We went to a dairy and examined 4 sick cows. Two of them likely had pneumonia. This was interesting for me to see after my last placement where we did lots of post mortems on cows that had died of pneumonia. This week I got the chance to examine and observe clinical signs of pneumonia in live cows.

Abscess are pretty common in cows. And if you are one of those people that love ‘Dr. Pimple Popper’ then you will love cattle abscesses. So when we got a call about a ‘cow with a lump on it’ that is what we suspected. But, that was not quite the case….

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This is not an abscess, not an abscess at all.

Instead we were presented with a really weird tumor hanging off the cow. It had appeared to have burst open then sealed and re-grown. We determined that it would be best to sedate the heifer for the removal procedure. We attempted IV sedation via the tail vein. Either we under-dosed or the heifer was just not having it—she got a bit loopy and angry but never sleepy enough for us to cast her. She paced at the end of her rope on the non-ideal side of the squeeze.  A bit of a rodeo ensued but eventually she was safely inside the squeeze again, and we infused the stalk of the tumor with a local anesthetic before removing it. The sun was going down and it felt like a bit of a race against time. When we finally had the tumor off I cut it open to see what it looked like inside (classic vet student… because this thing was gross!!).

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It was swollen and dark red inside. When you pressed on it a black liquid came off in my hand

The inside was really weird looking and my best guess is a hemangioma? Any other vet field friends have guesses as to what it could be?

 

I had been crossing my fingers and saying little prayers that we would get a calving call on one of my placements. It is a bit too early for lots of calving in Canada right now.  But we got a call for a c-section! Surgery was preformed in a fantastic and heated (yay) barn! with warm water and facilities—like a table! Everything went great and we had a live (large) calf at the end of it! We did a 2 layer closure on the uterus and a 3 muscle layer closure, then sub-cutaneous tissue, then skin. I definitely got my practice in with cattle sutures!

We had a few other interesting cases this week. One of them was a dog who could not pee. He is an adult dog but we suspect that he was born with an abnormality that prevents him from urinating. We took x-rays and he had a huge bladder! I catheterized it and drained a lot of urine for him! You could tell that he started feeling better by the minute. We hadn’t got to the bottom of the problem by the time my placement was over.

I also observed tail docking of some rottweiler puppies. This is quite the ethical/moral debate in the veterinary world.

Another interesting house call was to do puppy exams on German Shepherds (one of my favourite breeds!) at a breeder’s facility. This was a particularily cute….and wiggly exam day.

One morning we arrived to a severely sick scouring calf. We monitored vitals (heart rate, breathing rate, and temperature) and ran in warm IV fluids for a short while before heading off on a farm call. There was an older bull calf castration on the schedule that I wanted to watch.  The bull calf was a bilateral cryptorchid (inguinal crypts).  This means that his testicles were not fully descended and castrating him was not going to be as easy as we wanted it to be.  After putting in an epidural we got the job done on not 1, but 2 bull calves.

By the end of the second week I was lucky enough to have done a few feline spays, a couple of canine castrations, and a bunch of cat neuters on my own. I feel much more confident doing these surgeries by myself. I have yet to determine my own specific favorite method though—hopefully that will come during my de-sexing rotation in a few weeks time.

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So much focus and brain energy used. I also need to focus on not tensing up my shoulders during surgery.

 

 

After the last day of placement I said goodbye, and drove home in a beautiful snowfall to finish off my packing. Some of my friends stopped in to say goodbye which was lovely as well.

Thanks again to all the staff at Tri-Municipal and Meridian Vet Clinics! I had a great time!