Short info about both of you:
We are Stella Minnoye and Justin Keulen: Currently living and working on the Galapagos Islands, in a small clinic named Darwin Animal Doctors (DAD), located in Puerto Ayora, a seacoast city in Santa Cruz. It is a part of an American organization working together with Novagalapagos (local organization) to reduce the impact of (stray) dogs and cats on the Galapagos islands by means of educating and neuter/sterilization projects. We joined this program in the beginning of this year (2018) at the age of 27 (Stella) and 25 (Justin) and are eager to continue to use our skills in the field where it is most needed. Before this we worked in our home countries, in Ghent, Belgium (Stella): ‘Dierenartsenpraktijk Ons Huisdier’ and Maastricht, The Netherlands: ‘Dierenkliniek Caberg’. We are both very thankful to our colleagues for the opportunities and support for our journey.
Why did you decide to become vets?
Stella: from being a small kid was always taking care of animals; taking home stray, wounded animals from birds to horses, from wild to domestic animals, all of them have always been welcomed! I’ve always been surrounded by all kind of animals; guinea pigs, hamsters, cats, dogs, goats, horses, ponies, rabbits, chickens, … Although I always wanted to be a vet, I first completed a language course at University over 3 years. After this, I started the 6-year vet school journey at the University of Antwerp (Bachelor in the Science of Veterinary Medicine) and the University of Ghent (Master in the Science of Veterinary Medicine). From then on, I could start living the life I had always dreamed of.
Justin: Since I was a baby I have lived in a family surrounded by animals, at first only cats, but later on also farm animals, dogs, etc. I have always enjoyed the company of furry little friends, but never really stood still by the fact that I turn this passion for animals into my live and work; always being surrounded by animals and making sure they are healthy and living happily. As a kid it is hard to plan and think about the future, but I have always known that I wanted to work with animals and help them wherever possible. Then, when I was more or less 12 years old, my mother told me that I would make an excellent vet. From then on I started planning my future and making my dreams come true.
Where did you study?
Stella: I started and completed my 3-year Bachelor at the University of Antwerp, and 3-year Master at the University of Ghent. Two cities apart, I liked the difference between both Universities. The individualized education in Antwerp with interactive lectures and one-to-one discussions with professors and on the other hand education on a larger scale, but more specialized in Ghent. I am very grateful and satisfied with the knowledge I’ve gained during these years, especially during the last year which was all about clinical rotations. These schools offer very good education for reasonable fees so everyone gets a change to live their dream. I wouldn’t be able to choose between the two Universities; the University of Antwerp is located in a green area with parks for an afternoon stroll, the University of Ghent is located within an area with amazing restaurants and romantic buildings.
Justin: Completed my full education at Ghent University and had some of the best years of my life. Not only did I make friends for life, I also had the opportunity to be taught by some of the best doctors in their fields. I am really glad that I had the chance to learn from all these people during my clinical rotations, it formed me in my way of thinking. Besides the education I just liked living in the Ghent region. Five out of six years I have lived in the city of Ghent and I liked the combination of city life with the tranquility of the Faculty in Merelbeke. Despite the busy daily rotations, it was possible to have a tranquil break was it lying in the grass in summer or daydreaming in the Museum of the University. It even got better, after a day of working at the faculty, nothing tasted better than a nice fresh ‘pint’ in the city of Ghent.
What does your veterinary work include at the moment?
As said previously, we are currently on the Galapagos islands, more specific in the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. We work from Monday to Friday in the DAD clinic and the work is comparable with general practice. In the mornings (7:30-11:30) we mainly conduct surgeries like spays and neuters but also more complicated ones (perineal urethrostomies, ear canal resections, leg amputations, …). We are lucky to have a very long siesta from 11:30 to 16:00, when free walk in consults take place until 19:30. Of course, we are always available for emergencies outside of the opening hours.
In contrast to general practices in Europe we cannot/are not allowed to vaccinate here, this is strongly regulated by ABG (biosecurity). Most of the clients we see during consultations walk in with their pets for problems of anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea, skin problems, orthopedic problems or just for deparasitation and defleaing.
Because the living standards are somewhat lower and the people are not as well educated or have a different mindset we see a lot of sad cases: puppies of 4 weeks old that are not with the mother, HBC because people let their dogs roam freely on the streets, other trauma patients (cutting wounds e.g.), intoxications, … Regarding infectious diseases, in puppies we see a lot of parvovirus and adenovirus (due to non-vaccinations) or tick borne diseases (Ehrlichia), intestinal parasites, …
In order to reduce the impact of stray dogs and cats on the endemic life on the islands, we conducts several free sterilization campaigns a year on 2 of the 3 other inhabited islands (Isabela and San Cristobal), together with ABG.
Another aspect is the educational function of the clinic/organization. The clinic serves as a teaching spot for students to get to know or come accustomed with surgery, as well as general practice and emergency medicine. We try to give the volunteers an unforgettable experience by educating about the different aspects of being a veterinarian, as well as giving them time off to explore the islands. The education however is also focused on the local inhabitants of the Galapagos. As we explained before there are a lot of problems regarding ‘responsible ownership’ and that’s why DAD, together with Novagalapagos, has education high in their standards. By educating we try to improve the living standard of the ‘mascotas’ (pets). We regularly have local volunteers, children of around 12 years old, who can educate other children about responsible ownership.
How did you decide to pack up and leave to work and travel as vets?
For us it was not really a matter of ‘how’ or ‘if’ but more a question of ‘when’. During our studies we both had the dream to use our skills where they where most needed. So we have been talking about this dream ever since we met and have been planning this trip months in advance. The idea has always been there to work and volunteer as a travelling vet, we planned our first trip and we’d see what comes next. Leaving ‘everything’ behind was, and still is, hard sometimes, especially when things happen at home. But we know we always have a safe haven to return to, if it would ever be necessary. We try to keep in contact with family and friends as much as possible.
Tell us something about your mission and your journey? How is it going so far?
Our journey as just started, but in the future we are planning to work and volunteer in all the corners of the world. Although the journey is still in its early phase, our mission is very clear: we want to help animals in remote places that do not have the care they need, as well as protecting fragile environments. With DAD we found an excellent place to start, it resembles exactly our view on these issues. In the future however we might start our own project in a place where veterinary care is not yet available. So far we’ve had the feeling that we’ve made a huge difference in many animals’ lives. We’ve taken care, together with vet students, of very difficult cases, have made difficult decisions and have neutered and spayed a couple of hundreds of cats and dogs. Seeing happy owners, animals and colleagues is very rewarding and gives us the extra vibe, despite some difficult times, to continue what we are doing.
If we have to remember one case it is going to be Panda; a puppy that stood on the edge of life. She came in really lethargic and on clinical examination her mucosae were as white as snow. After some further diagnostics (we are able to do some blood tests) we concluded IMHA by Erlichia (a blood parasite). The diagnosis was one step, the treatment was another. After starting initial treatment she kept on decreasing in strength, and the mucous membranes got paler and paler. Although not really in the position of doing a blood transfusion, this was something that had to be done to save her life. It was something inevitable to save her life. The family was able to find a donor so we immediately started the transfusion that night. With closely monitoring we followed the transfusion and completed it without complications. She started improving right away and a couple of days later she was strong enough to go home under the condition that she got her meds properly. We were so delightful with the result and even happier when she returned and walked in as queen of the clinic. Cases like this fill our hearts with joy!
The most inspiring story we have is also the one just told. That even with limited resources you are able to save an animal’s life. And it does not have to be a blood transfusion, in places like this good education or a decent puppy deparasitation can already make a huge difference. However, Oreo, a male cat that had a history of several blockages, is now able to pee without any problem after we conducted the perineal urethrostomy! He is also one of our favorite patients!
Do you have any advice for the future vets?
The most important advice we have for future veterinarians is: Follow your dreams!
If you have a goal in life there is always a way to make that happen. The dream for the two of us has always been there: travel the world as 2 veterinarians to help out wherever we can. With that goal in mind and a decent planning we were able to realize this. But we must say that our education as well as our working experience really taught us a lot; we have used our knowledge and professional experience and wouldn’t have been the veterinarians we are now without the clinical rotations, the hard work and the people guiding us.