Building Bridges Across Water and Land

by Leslie Sklena, DVM

September 11, 2012

Dr. Skalena and Karla Nova
Dr. Leslie Sklena (left) and Karla Nova, a veterinary student from the Dominican Republic.
Susan Monger, DVM

Like many of my colleagues, I am practicing in an area of veterinary medicine that I never thought I would. I entered veterinary school with the goal of being an equine practitioner, but have instead ended up as a staff veterinarian at the San Diego Humane Society; one of the most progressive animal shelters in the country. I couldn’t be more professionally satisfied and feel more privileged to work here. If it were not for my participation with HSVMA’s Rural Area Veterinary Services program or the support I have received from mentors like HSVMA-RAVS International Director Dr. Susan Monger, I know that I would not be where I am today. So when Dr. Monger told me that one of her students from the Dominican Republic wanted to participate in a rotation at the San Diego Humane Society, I was thrilled to help make that happen. Karla Nova, a fourth year veterinary student from the Autonomas University of Santo Domingo, spent several weeks working with us at the shelter. It was a special experience to be able to host an international student and know that it was facilitated through our RAVS connection.

Changing Lives

I believe that there are moments in life that define us and it is our experiences that shape us. That being said, I am not exaggerating when I say that the RAVS program changed my life. I was a third year veterinary student when I first stepped onto the Pine Ridge Native American reservation in South Dakota, and it did not take long before I knew that this kind of work was my calling.

I remember the heat of the day starting at 5 a.m., the organized chaos of the clinic set up, and the snaking line of people who had been anxiously waiting since daybreak for our clinic services. The love that people have for their animals transcends any economic or geographic situation, and every animal and family in need deserves the basic veterinary care that HSVMA-RAVS provides. The surgical and anesthetic equipment and protocols that RAVS utilizes rival many brick and mortar veterinary clinics, and proves that good medicine can be practiced anywhere if you have a motivated team with high standards to get the job done.

I recall Karla telling me that until Dr. Monger came to teach at her veterinary school, the sole method of anesthesia was by injectable means. She said that it was an amazing improvement to their clinic to be able to utilize the gas anesthetic equipment and expertise that Dr. Monger shared with them.

Providing Unique Learning Experiences

In addition to the emotional reward felt by providing veterinary assistance and education to communities in need are the connections and relationships formed through this bonding experience. I fondly remember long car rides through the beautiful South Dakota plains, rotating drivers so we each could practice our figure eight and Miller’s knots in the car, and late evening respites at the “Big Bat’s” gas station for a greasy spoon dinner and the rehashing of exciting events of the day. At the end of a long day, never before had sleeping on a hard floor felt so comfortable!

As students, I remember practicing the “see one, do one, teach one” method for surgical procedures, and nothing fosters a stronger bond between students than supporting one another while working through steep learning curves together. I owe many thanks to my fellow student colleagues and volunteer veterinarians who patiently taught me how to perform spays, neuters, and the intricacies of a thorough physical exam — which, by the way, can be performed anywhere: in a parking lot, a bathroom or, most memorable for me, the tailgate of a truck!

Improving Lives

HSVMA-RAVS provides more than the opportunity for students to hone their practical, surgical and medical skills; it provides an opportunity for personal growth, teaches us the importance of cohesive teamwork, and opens our eyes to the needs of communities within our own borders and beyond. Through continued efforts to enhance the surgical and medical skills of veterinary students throughout the United States and beyond, we are making the world a better place for animals.

Through my connection with Karla and Dr. Monger, I hope to invite more international student externs to my shelter and share with them what we have to offer our community and population of animals in our care. Also, I think I see a trip to the Dominican Republic in my future, in an effort to repay what was paid forward to me when I was a student volunteer. Now I’ve just got to learn Spanish! As I was there to help correct her square knots and surgery, hopefully Karla will be there to help correct my grammar!