Lynsee Melchi, South Africa, June-August 2016

From June until August 2016 I was in South Africa completing two public health rotations and one avian/exotics primary care rotation.  This is my sixth trip to South Africa since my first study abroad experience in 2002.  In 2007 and 2008 I was working on my BVSc (equivalent to DVM) at the veterinary school in Pretoria.  I was unable to finish due to financial constraints, but I got a taste of veterinary medicine and built a network of friends and future colleagues at the tip of the African continent.  My most recent trip was more of a homecoming which provided a great opportunity to visit old friends, refresh my veterinary networks, and get a more nuanced appreciation of the veterinary and public health scenes.

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My first rotation was at a primary care clinic in Johannesburg.  The clinic sees dogs, cats, birds, and everything in between.  They accept all wild animals for free and, if treatable, the animals are released back into the wild.  This is one of the few avian-centric clinics in the country, so I mostly worked with birds.  Birds are not my best species, which is one of the reasons I chose this clinic, so I strengthened my basic handling and clinical skills.  I helped with “wings and nails” (trimming), gavaging (tube feeding), taking blood, and euthanizing birds.  My confidence grew immensely and by the end of my time I was holding macaws and other big birds like a boss!  The most amazing animal we saw was a crested crane brought in for a re-check on a broken leg.  Unfortunately that bird was euthanized because of a severe bumblefoot in the opposite leg, but it was truly the most majestic animal I have ever seen up close.

My second rotation was in Polokwane, in the Limpopo province, with the Limpopo Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Public Health program.  The veterinarian I worked with has a very diverse workload, including abattoir (slaughterhouse) inspection, running primary health care activities, and working on national policies.  I got a great overview of public health by working with both municipal and provincial state veterinarians.  In my two weeks I went out on clinical calls in rural areas, visited a rural abattoir, attended a working group meeting for designing a national aquaculture health policy, and participated in a spay/neuter/vaccination campaign for Nelson Mandela Day (a global service day on Mandela’s birthday of July 18).  My friend owns his own mixed animal practice so when we weren’t working for the government we saw cases in his clinic.  Never a dull moment in Polokwane!

My third rotation was in Ulundi, in the KwaZulu Natal province, with the KwaZulu Natal Department of Agriculture’s Animal Health program.  I was based at a clinic in Ulundi, the very rural cattle-rich unofficial Zulu capital, and got the opportunity to work with the attending veterinarian as well as a recent grad who was completing his year of Compulsory Community Service (CCS).  Human medical graduates in South Africa participate in a paid year of service upon completion of their degree.  2015-16 is the first year CCS has included veterinary graduates.  It was interesting to hear the challenges the CCS vet faced as a trailblazer of the program and it was nice to work with someone just a year out of school as he is currently living my not-so-distant future.  We mostly saw packs of Greyhounds at the clinic, but we also saw some livestock both at the clinic and in the community.  I did some cattle herd health checks, including the cattle owned by a very famous Zulu prince.  The area is currently experiencing the worst drought in recorded history, so the cattle there face a lot of health challenges.  I brushed up on my elementary-at-best Zulu, learning a lot of new words and fumbling my way through client communication.  Kumnandi!  (It’s nice!)

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The majority of my friends are veterinarians, so I had a lot of unexpected opportunities to nerd out on vet stuff all over the country.  I spent a day with a veterinary nurse (the equivalent of a certified vet tech) on his rounds out in rural Mpumalanga.  I spent a few of my off days living and working at the Johannesburg Zoo.  I caught up with friends working at the national agriculture office, doing import/export at one of the busiest ports in Africa, and doing health certifications for Cape Buffalo(the most regulated animal in South Africa).  I also visited my alma mater, Onderstepoort Faculty of Veterinary Science in Pretoria, where I got a chance to interact with students, residents, and nurses.  Plus I toured their new skills lab, which is strikingly similar to our beloved Clinical Skills Learning Center.

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I didn’t tour much, besides visiting friends, as I have already been a pretty good tourist of Southern Africa on past trips.  South Africa has an extensive and well-traveled tourism infrastructure.  I highly recommend it if you have an interest in Africa, but don’t know which country to start with.  It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been and the people can’t be beat!

I have a few take home lessons to share.  First, the veterinarians there are often doing more with less.  This is a lesson I have always come away with from a visit to South Africa.  I learned how to make suturing needles out of hypodermic needles, how to make bird casts out of tape and super glue, and simple tricks for diagnosing hardware disease out in the field.  I also learned that real world veterinary practice can be a lot more relaxed than what we are taught in school.  I saw veterinarians doing surgeries without sterile gloves (and the animals survived!) and the overall pace was very on par with “African time.”  I am not a very good Type A person, so having the opportunity to relax and let the theory be my guide was very refreshing.  It gave me a lot of confidence that I too will be able to practice veterinary medicine without being a total failure.  Yes I can!  My glimpse of the public health scene in South Africa was also very informative.  The unique public health challenges faced involve accommodating a spectrum of producers from people that have a few cattle grazing on public lands to large operations producing animals for export.  A lot of the public health work I participated in was helping to deliver service to previously disadvantaged groups of people.  This meant a lot of education and a focus on basic clinical services.  The challenges of lack of funds and skilled people are worldwide and typified a lot of the frustrations the veterinarians experienced.

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I want to thank all of the people that hosted me and made room for me in their daily work.  I appreciate getting a chance to build my understanding of veterinary medicine and public health in South Africa.

If you would like to learn more about my trip you can read my personal blog at:

Since my first trip to South Africa in 2002, I have made it a point to bring the stories of South Africa to my United States people.  On this trip I did a serious of interviews with many of the veterinary professionals I met.  You can find these interviews at the University of Illinois’s College of Veterinary Medicine website in the student blogs section.  Here is an interview I did with Dr. Muzi Dube, the director of the Johannesburg Zoo, to wet your whistle: