Sydney University veterinary student Esther Kim always wanted to volunteer for a not-for-profit animal welfare organisation, and when an opportunity came up with Vets Beyond Borders earlier this year, she jumped at it.
Esther travelled to Cambodia where she volunteered for three weeks at the Phnom Penh Animal Welfare Society (PPAWS) clinic as part of her final year university placement programme.
“The PPAWS clinic works to improve animal and human welfare in Cambodia through providing rabies vaccinations and desexing stray animals. It is a very selfless organisation and I am very happy I was a part of the team,” she said.
Esther currently works as a weekend nurse/receptionist at Alexandria Veterinary Hospital. At her workplace and university, she has access to state-of-the-art facilities, resources and expert advice when required. By volunteering at a third world veterinary clinic, she wanted to learn how to be adaptable and flexible in situations where resources are not readily available.
“I wanted to be able to devise plan B for when plan A is not achievable, without compromising the welfare of the animal,” she said. “I hoped to learn surgery from vets who do hundreds of desexing procedures every month, and in turn, share the knowledge and resources I have from studying at Sydney University.”
Esther says veterinary professionals are very privileged in Australia to practice high quality veterinary services for animals.
“In Cambodia, it is very difficult for people to be able to afford veterinary care. There are lots of stray animals and because of Buddhist faith, some still believe that animals should not be desexed and live their natural course of life without veterinary intervention,” she said.
She was also surprised to discover how difficult it is to import certain medical equipment and drugs (such as opiates, gas anaesthetics) into Cambodia.
“Many products Cambodian vets used had to be bought from human hospitals and chemists or imported from Thailand. They couldn’t obtain basic urinalysis equipment due to government regulations, and opioids for pain relief was impossible to obtain. Oxygen and gas anaesthetics had never been used,” she said. “Many resources we have in Australia are unattainable for vets in Cambodia, so they need to be clever and improvise with different combinations of drugs and methods to carry out the best treatment they can.”
Therefore, when vets and veterinary students from around the world visit PPAWS, they are able to spread veterinary knowledge and learn from each other, she added.
Esther learned new suturing techniques and tissue handling skills from the vets at PPAWS. In return, she helped the vets interpret blood tests and suggested different drug protocols.
She also gained experience assisting vets with desexing procedures, consultations and physical exams, as well as administering medication and treatment to in-patients, especially those affected with canine distemper or panleukopenia virus (very rarely seen in Australia).
Esther went on a ‘field day’ mission to Kep and Kampot to desex and vaccinate client-owned and stray animals. One memorable experience was desexing a female dog in a field in Kampot.
Esther recalled, “We were in the middle of nowhere. The dog belonged to a family who lived very far from the main town. The dog had multiple litters of puppies. We drove up to a dirt field on a hill and there were teenagers blasting music and chatting amongst themselves. They provided us with one table and a bucket of water, and we anaesthetised and began the surgery as sterile as possible. The teens had never seen a surgery before and filmed us with their phones the entire time. After the surgery finished, I took a step back and looked around to see what we had performed in the environment I was in and I couldn’t believe what just happened.”
Esther highly recommends volunteering at PPAWS to veterinary students around the world.
“Although the facilities aren’t state-of-the-art, you really learn how to become adaptable and flexible in how you think. You learn that there are more options to treating the animal than you once thought, and become better at physical examinations because diagnostic tests are limited,” she said.
“The PPAWS staff are lovely and language is barely a barrier. The vets are used to having students around and will show you useful tips and tricks during surgery. I found it a real eye opener!”
“This was my first time volunteering with a non-profit animal welfare organisation. It really opened my mind and I was so grateful to meet like-minded individuals who were all so selfless and dedicated in their work. Even if I get busy in the coming years with full time work, I hope to return to PPAWS to help the team out.”
Thank you Esther for your hard work in Cambodia! We are excited to see where your veterinary career will take you and look forward to having you volunteer with us again in the future.