A Lesson in Translation

by Heather Riggs, CVT

June 12, 2012

2012 Bolivia group
Team UAGRM-RAVS—the UAGRM graduating class of 2012, faculty and HSVMA-RAVS team—on the final day of clinics.
Susan Monger, DVM

I went on my first HSVMA-RAVS trip, a teaching clinic in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in March of 2011. Under the leadership of HSVMA-RAVS International Director Dr. Susan Monger, our team worked at Universidad Autonoma Gabriel Rene Moreno School (UAGRM) of Veterinary Medicine, teaching veterinary students about small animal anesthetic and surgical techniques.

I have been a veterinary technician for eight years and a veterinary technician educator for five years, but I had never participated in an international teaching clinic so I was unsure of what to expect when preparing for the trip. In the months and weeks leading up to the clinic, Dr. Monger shared with the HSVMA-RAVS team the information and materials that we would be teaching to the students. While I worked on learning the protocols, I also attempted to obtain basic Spanish language skills. By the time I arrived in Bolivia, I felt prepared to fully participate in the teaching clinics.

What I was not prepared for was the overwhelming sense of friendship, camaraderie and satisfaction that I would gain during my week at UAGRM. Our team shared a passion for animals and a love for veterinary medicine that was able to bridge any communication barrier or cultural gap. Teachers and students worked together as a team of dedicated veterinary professionals with the shared goal of improving the level of veterinary medicine that is practiced in Bolivia, which is the economically poorest of all the South American countries. Despite the language barrier, I made connections with many of the students and shared in their excitement as they learned new concepts and skills through our work together.

By the end of the clinic, I truly identified with RAVS’ mission and approach. I even felt that I might not have such a rewarding teaching experience again. I returned to my own job energized, excited and eager to inspire my students and colleagues to participate in service programs like RAVS. I did not expect to have a second chance at such an amazing opportunity, but I was lucky enough to be invited by Dr. Monger to return to the UAGRM clinic this past March.

This year, with experience as my guide, I involved my own students in my pre-clinic preparatory process. My students collected donations, including textbooks, medical supplies, scrubs, etc., that I delivered to the UAGRM faculty and students. Even though UAGRM received a new veterinary teaching hospital this year, the university and the teaching hospital face daily challenges to teaching and treatment. Access to pharmaceuticals as well as veterinary equipment, supplies and reference materials is very limited. In many cases, owners of critically ill animals are sent to a local pharmacy to purchase basic medications and bring them back to the teaching hospital so that the veterinarians can treat their animals.

Another challenge faced by the clinicians at the teaching hospital is the general condition of the animals that are carried through their doors. Access to preventative veterinary medicine is a challenge for many Bolivians. Many of the animals that we treated had high parasite loads and were ehrlichia-positive.

Pelusa after surgery
Pelusa, an elderly cat with a pyometra, in recovery after surgery.
Susan Monger, DVM

Over the course of the week of teaching clinics, we treated 40 animals. I felt particularly good about helping “Pelusa,” a 17 year-old cat with a pyometra. A few days after Pelusa’s successful surgery her very dedicated owner, with tears in her eyes, sought out the RAVS team and presented us with photos and gifts as a thank you for saving her cherished pet’s life.

In order to prepare for the surgical clinic, the students had to completed a weeklong series of lectures focusing on small animal anesthesia and surgery. Then, during the weeklong surgical clinic, they gained hands-on experience working one-on-one with veterinary technicians and veterinarians on anesthetic and surgical cases. During non-clinic hours, students reviewed drug protocols and calculations, practiced suture patterns on suture boards, reviewed surgical procedures and anatomy, and practiced aseptic techniques.

Although the majority of my time was spent working with the vet students, I also formed a friendship with three female technicians from La Paz, nicknamed “The Chicas.” “The Chicas” were very motivated to learn some of my techniques and take them back for use in their work place. Two of the women spoke only Spanish, but one spoke a fair amount of English, so—using a combination of simple Spanish and English vocabulary, some translation and charades—we worked anesthesia cases together from start to finish, sharing the techniques that we found most helpful in various situations.

Being a part of the HSVMA-RAVS team at UAGRM for two consecutive years was not only personally fulfilling because of the opportunity to serve animals in need and the chance to share knowledge with veterinary students that were eager to learn, but also because of the lasting friendships that were made. In sharing my knowledge and experience with the veterinary students in Bolivia, I have learned much more than I was able to teach others, and in that lays the greatest educational opportunity of all.

Heather Riggs and students
Heather Riggs (center) with two UAGRM veterinary students.
Susan Monger, DVM

Heather Riggs, CVT is the Veterinary Technology Program Chair at Broadview University in her hometown of Orem, Utah and a previous instructor at the Mountainland Applied Technology College, also in Orem. She started her veterinary career more than 10 years ago as a kennel technician and worked her way up to lead veterinary technician, and stills work part-time in the very same veterinary clinic where she got her start! Heather has extensive experience working with exotics and birds, and has a love for emergency medicine. She received her Bachelor’s Degree from Brigham Young University, and passed the Veterinary Technician National Exam in 2005. Heather has had many animals in her life, including horses, dogs, cats, rats, turtles, rabbits and birds, and is currently a proud mom to three dogs, two cats and a hedgehog.