New graduate Gemma put her veterinary skills to use in the Cook Islands during her degree

I grew up on a sheep and beef farm in rural New Zealand. As I was growing up I had pets of almost every species imaginable including cats, dogs, guinea pigs, lambs, goats, turkeys, deer and a pony. But becoming a veterinarian was, in all honesty, never more than an occasional fleeting thought. I thought becoming a veterinarian was just an unattainable pipe dream and thus deserved little of my attention.

What I was certain of though, was my love for animals, a passion for their wellbeing and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. This led me down the path of academia and I completed a PhD at Massey University investigating Epichloe festucae, a ryegrass fungus which is toxic to sheep and cattle and can cause ryegrass staggers syndrome, leading to neurological damage or even death in some cases.

As I was nearing the end of my PhD I lost a special little cat in a road accident and had a close call with one of my other cats eating, of all things, a sewing needle and requiring emergency surgery. The care and compassion of the veterinary profession through these two events really struck a chord and I realised just how important the strength of the human-animal bond was to me. So important, in fact, that I knew I needed to be a part of the veterinary profession. I wanted to foster and protect this bond between other animals and their owners. In a whirlwind few months I had applied and been accepted in the University of Melbourne’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program, shifted countries with my partner and have never looked back!

The DVM at the University has fostered my interest in animal welfare and the flexibility in final year extramural placements allowed me to grow this passion with an involvement in shelter work and outreach programs.

Towards the end of my final year, I travelled to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand for a placement. I spent two weeks at a local charity veterinary clinic called Te Are Manu, which means 'the healing place for small animals'. Te Are Manu relies on the generosity of volunteers from all over the world to staff the clinic and provide veterinary care to the animals of Rarotonga. It’s a relatively new clinic on the island and during my time there I was interviewed for the local Cook Island Television News Channel.

The Cook Island Television News crew visit us at the clinic.

The dogs and cats I encountered on the island were some of the most charming animals I've ever had the pleasure of working with. However many of these animals are strays and it is an ongoing endeavour to keep the population at bay. Thus, a lot of veterinary work involves spaying and castrating animals. Road trauma is unfortunately seen all too often, and in these challenging conditions with limited resources amputations are usually the outcome if a broken limb cannot be saved.

Ciguatera fish poisoning was a unique illness I encountered while in Rarotonga. The Ciguatera toxin affects the gastrointestinal and neurological systems, and can be fatal if poisoning is severe. Treatment is symptomatic and supportive, often with good outcome. During my time in Rarotonga I helped manage a case of fish poisoning in a cat - the cat had made almost a full recovery by the end of my time here. Unfortunately due to a presumed hypersensitivity reaction fish is off the menu for recovering kitties!

Ciguatera poisoning means fish is off the menu for now.

The quirks of 'working with what you've got' were a highlight for me. IV fluids are donated from the hospital but if supplies run short, remarkably, a young coconut can be cracked open and the juice is used instead!

I really enjoyed the challenge of working with limited resources in this environment. Too often I take for granted the ample supply of medicines, pristine working conditions and anaesthetic equipment with all the bells and whistles. Working here not only made me appreciate the access to resources I have back in Melbourne but also pushed me to think outside of the box, to get the best outcome for the animals with what was available.

I am now working at a busy small animal clinic in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. While this role will keep me more than busy, in future I hope to remain involved with more outreach experiences such as this.

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