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2020 - The Beginning

“How to write my first blog post?” I thought. And I thought long, and I thought hard. Until I could no longer fool even myself that all this thinking might better be termed procrastination. I intuitively recognised the need for my first writing to represent the beginning, but the beginning of what, exactly? My life, my running, my veterinary career, my love of nature? Although all would have relevance, and will most likely form the topics of future blog posts, I decided that this first one would have greater value in being based on the present. And so 2020, a year of so many firsts not only for me but the world at large, has earned itself the credible title of “The Beginning” and made it onto the new-born website of a small start-up business with, at the date of publication, an insignificant blog. But hey, we all have to start somewhere, right?

Early January 2020 saw me expertly executing another case of procrastination. Let’s just say I wasn’t exactly keen on the new year, my only resolution not to become another veterinary suicide statistic. No, I exaggerate. But you get the point... My new job as Compulsory Community Service (CCS) Veterinarian in the Free State was a four hour drive from home and I had not yet found accommodation, hadn’t met the colleague with whom I’d be working (despite supposedly studying together for the last seven years), and I knew even less than your average new graduate! Due to start work on the 8th, I miserably packed up my essentials from Johannesburg on the evening of the 7th and departed 4am the next day for the sprawling town of Phuthaditjhaba. Wallowing in a self-pity deeper and darker than my flask of black coffee, I was barely 10km from home when a township dog with a death wish trotted into the road in front of me. I swerved wildly and the oblivious animal continued its early morning hunt. What a brilliantly ironic beginning, I thought.

The first quarter of 2020 passed in a blur, particularly the driving to and from Jo’burg almost every weekend. I had found myself a quaint mountain hut to rent on the border of Golden Gate Highlands National Park, for which I was very grateful. Green mountains and valleys rolled away in every direction, but I was lonely and struggled to appreciate their full beauty. For the first time in my life I was living completely alone. I had no human or canine company with whom to share the many horrors and occasional joys of my day-to-day patients, and running was only just keeping me sane. Only three months in and already I was thinking of throwing in the towel. But then what? Back to polluted city life, living at home with no purpose, no salary and unable to practice veterinary in South Africa?

Around about this time came the first of several life-saving, or in my case job-saving, lucky breaks. Phuthaditjhaba is part of the Maluti-a-Phofung municipality and if this, or “Qwaqwa,” doesn’t ring any bells, then you’re probably not big on watching the news. A quick Google search, however, will reveal that the top stories of Maluti-a-Phofung in 2020 relate either to electricity (continuous non-payment of Eskom) or water (as in complete lack thereof). The latter is most relevant to my story. For weeks on end our clinic functioned without running water. We were fortunate to have a Jo-Jo tank just outside, but as you might imagine basic cleaning of any medical facility, never mind the mopping up of post-surgical blood and washing of drapes, would be challenging with only hand-carried buckets of cold water. Nevertheless, we persisted. That is, until the community objected to this ongoing bucket system. The daily routine for most of Qwaqwa started with a pre-dawn walk and a wheelbarrow load of buckets and bottles to the nearest water tank. There they would join the queue which seemed to consist of multiple streets worth of residents. If they were early and lucky enough they’d return home successful. Those that weren’t would either repeat the process in the afternoon or hang around in the hope that a water truck might refill at some point during the day. Several months of this and the locals had had enough. They wanted running water. They called for “shutdown.”

And so came my first escape from the clinic – a much needed, two-week long paid holiday enforced through violent strikes, road blocks and the looting of businesses that maintained operations over this period. For the animals of the community I wholly regretted the closing of their one and only veterinary clinic. But one could argue that humans suffered a similar lack of medical care over that period. Anyway, I didn’t dwell too long on the matter. I was free to run, ride my bike and spend time with my own dog until some form of normality returned to Maluti-a-Phofung.

The next relief, ironically, came in the form of COVID-19. Once again our clinic was ordered closed, this time for “lockdown.” It was a struggle for any essential service to comply with COVID hygiene standards; our continued lack of water made it basically impossible. Another few weeks of holiday were to be had, but this time with a bonus. Well, I saw it as a bonus... My mountain partner, one of many unfortunate pilots, was suddenly retrenched with almost immediate effect. Long story short (you can read the long story in his upcoming blog post), both him and my best friend of 10 years (that’s the Dobby Dog) relocated to my mountain hut. Happiness!

Naturally I resumed work a few weeks later, albeit with a significantly improved outlook on life and the prospect of possibly being able to complete my CCS year. But still, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. The work of a South African community vet is generally plagued with language barriers, lack of basic service delivery and an absence of guidance from an experienced supervisor. Our surgeries were usually a guessing game, our anaesthetic machine always a question mark, and our fancy radiography equipment lacking some critical component, deeming it redundant. So instead we focused on consultations, of which there was certainly no shortage. Even in the depths of winter we would see multiple cases of babesia (tick bite fever in dogs) and parvo (a highly contagious and often fatal viral infection of the gastrointestinal tract of unvaccinated puppies) each week. Every consult was accompanied by a parrot-like speech on the importance of vaccination, deworming, tick-control and real dog food, but the consistent flow of repeat offenders made us seriously question our “client compliance”.

Despite the trials and tribulations of working in a township of over 300 000 people, I was gradually coming to the realisation that the alternative of private practice didn’t appeal to me either. In complete contrast to what I once heard being said of rural areas - “Sometimes the cow lives, sometimes the cow dies” - private practitioners are bedeviled (in my opinion) with owners of chronically ill and suffering animals that they cannot bear to part with. By no means am I saying that animals of rural and unserviced communities don’t suffer – indeed, the numbers are surely much greater for such regions. But sense of reality and practicality can easily be lost when money and availability of veterinary services is of no concern. To give an example, a final-year student colleague of mine handled the case of a paralysed Pomeranian on our medical rotation. Medicine and surgery specialists are extremely knowledgeable and intelligent doctors who are able to diagnose almost any rare disease or condition given enough time, money and specialised diagnostic equipment. This Pomeranian was no exception. After a week in hospital they had determined the cause of its paralysis and identified a plethora of other issues, not least of which was chronic renal failure. Despite this, the poor creature was subjected to a further week of cage confinement (irrelevant as it was unable to move even to relieve itself) as the owners contemplated the unthinkable prospect of euthanasia. They didn’t even take their beloved animal home, likely not keen on the twice-daily bathing it required in its final days. And my question was – for what? Why allow so much suffering when the outcome is inevitable, the quality of life zero, and humane euthanasia a veterinary blessing that many terminally ill humans would love to request?

Apologies for that sop-story, but its one I’ll never quite shake. Also, it’s unfortunately rather common in private practice, which brings me back to my thoughts on pursuing this veterinary career. Simply put, I decided that it was not for me. I love animals, yes. And I enjoy the mental stimulation of a challenging job. But I don’t enjoy the cruelty, the suffering, the death and illness, the emotional distancing, the difficult people and the monetary dictation of treatment. I also wouldn’t enjoy the long working hours, after hours, weekends and emergency call outs of private practice. There are many vets whose jobs are their number one priorities in life, and it’s a dedicated vet like that I want to reach if I ever have to make a midnight call for an emergency with my own pet. But I’d be lying if I said I wanted to be that vet.

So, what is it then that I DO want to be? Good question. A free running mountain hiking bikepacking coaching minimalist eco-conscious anti-plastic free diving flower loving travel writing photographer isn’t going to pay the bills... Or could it? And is life all about paying bills anyway? I believe not. Of course I realise that there is a lower limit to the amount of money required to be happy and healthy. Simultaneously there is a cap above which more money does not equal more happiness, but rather the contrary. So the key then must be to find the perfect balance, and there is one keyword in my long list of aspirations which might just enable me to do this: minimalist. If I could be minimalist enough, perhaps all those other hobbies could pay my bills.

There is only one way to test my theory and that is to put it into practice. Fortunately I already have a lead on several of my options: I’m a successful trail runner with a very nice mountain bike, have a UESCA running coach qualification and First Aid Level 2, have loved living in a minimalist mountain hut without most modern-day luxuries for almost a year, enjoy writing and have never been advised not to bother, and am the co-owner of a very decent Canon camera with a trio of lenses. The question of what to do with this conglomeration is a work in progress. But is the same not true of every new venture? The “work”, as you know by now, has been named “Mountain Abandon.” The progress so far has been a little slow as I complete my final two months of CCS and can’t yet throw myself into the project with complete “abandon”. But I’m excited for what is to come in 2021 – the fun is only just beginning!

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1 Comment

Loved your first blog Nicolette! Looking forward to reading many more.

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