They say you’ll become busier after retirement and this is certainly true for Australian veterinarian Dr Alan Sherlock, who recently celebrated his 72nd birthday and 10th annual, 6-8 weeks, volunteer trip to Sikkim, India.
Dr Alan retired earlier this year but continues to volunteer annually for Vets Beyond Borders to support a team of vets, paravets (vet nurses) and staff on the SARAH (Sikkim Anti-Rabies and Animal Health) program in Sikkim.
SARAH is a collaboration between VBB, the Government of Sikkim and Fondation Brigitte Bardot, and activities involve canine rabies vaccination, humane dog population control, community education and treatment of sick and injured animals.
Dr Alan recently returned from his 10th trip to Sikkim with a feeling of accomplishment, saying he had an enjoyable experience as all his previous trips have been. By now, he knows many vets, vet students, Government authorities and members of the public, all over Sikkim.
“I recognise their faces, but often can’t place where or which year I first met them,” he laughed. “It is a great delight for me to have them rush up to me with smiles on their faces and greet me, ‘Oh Dr Alan, you are back again, great to see you. Do you remember me and how you helped me do such and such…’ I feel welcomed and wanted, and that I make a true difference. I feel they pick up something from me.”
Through VBB VetMatch and VetTrain, every year Dr Alan assists the SARAH Team in desexing/surgery and trains the local vets, students and interns in many aspects of surgery and medicine. The SARAH Team also goes on ‘field camps’ to remote communities statewide, for desexing and vaccinating against rabies.
“One never quite knows from one day to the next what we will deal with,” he said. “Last year we treated a snow leopard at the zoo in Gangtok, the capital city of Sikkim!”
Usually about 250 dogs are operated on by two vets, supported by two or three paravets, during each field trip. Many dogs are already desexed and simply receive booster rabies vaccinations, explained Dr Alan.
“The field camps are run extremely efficiently, and it is possible for the SARAH Team to achieve up to about 40 dogs a day,” he said. “We have a production line with desexing. The para-vets anaesthetise and prep the dogs and put them in front of us. My maximum for one day was 30 and it almost killed me!”
Back in Deorali, where the main SARAH Clinic and headquarters are situated, the team attended to various other problems encountered with street dogs and owned dogs, such as car accidents, broken bones, skin problems, old age or distemper.
“To me these are important issues, but the preventative (desexing and vaccination) work is more important,” said Dr Alan.
It is also essential to educate; particularly the Indian veterinary staff, students, interns and paravets about continuing the desexing and vaccination work themselves, he said.
“I have now desexed about 2,500 dogs in total, but even if I keep coming back for 100 years, I will not get the other 20 million dogs in India done! Vets Beyond Borders has set the standard but it is up to them to continue to do the good work,” Dr Alan said.
Great opportunity for overseas university graduates
SARAH also offers a great opportunity for university graduates to gain experience and confidence.
“Working on these remote projects means that you need to be a ‘Jack-of-all-Trades’ as there are no veterinary specialists around and no back-up resources, like blood tests. In many cases you have to go back to your basic training and used common sense,” he said.
The retired vet encouraged new university graduates to be a ‘Jack of all Trades’ first, before specialising in one aspect of veterinary medicine.
“Many new graduates are frightened to do surgery as they don’t feel confident,” said Dr Alan.
As veterinarians need at least two years of work experience to volunteer in Sikkim, graduates can attend as a vet nurse and gain experience under the watchful eyes of the teaching vets, he added.
“Volunteering for Vets Beyond Borders benefits the volunteers as much as the people they give to. It has been shown that volunteers are happier people, live longer and are healthier,” he said. “I look forward to trips to Sikkim because I see extended family, have stunning experiences and work in phenomenally beautiful countryside. Very few Australians know of Sikkim. A fabulous tourist destination for reasonably fit people, interested in trekking or just enjoying the scenery.”
VBB volunteers have much to learn from the people of Sikkim, he added.
“You come back home and realise that people there are happier than many Westerners are,” said Dr Alan. “They have 1% of what we have and value what they have. They are not materialistic and don’t hanker for inconceivable things. Kids all go to school, fit and healthy, in beautiful school uniforms. They walk everywhere. They show us you don’t have to have wealth to be happy. That’s what we can learn from them.”
Dr Alan may have just returned home but he’s already thinking about his next visit to Sikkim.
“I never like to promise a return visit because we never know what the next year will bring. However, I hope to return next year,” he said.
Sounds like a pretty good retirement plan!