International Programs

James Liu

Nicaragua

Nicaragua. I wish I could sum up in words what this trip meant to me individually and us as a group…but here’s my best shot!

After a grueling year of classes and enduring the trials and tribulations of the new curriculum, it was a breath of fresh air to be a part of this project. It was a unique opportunity where I could build something larger than individual patient outcome, and be a part of creating a sustainable One Health program for myself and others. I am a firm believer that students are most capable of creative and extraordinary work, NAY, paradigm shifting revolution when left to their own devices and thoughts, unencumbered by convention or the structure of traditional teaching and faculty supervision. And that is how I feel about our group. We (led by the mighty Fiona) were gently guided by various faculty, but by and large did this on our own. We brainstormed what we wanted to accomplish, who to talk to, how to get there, and how to get around a variety of roadblocks once we landed in country. It was very empowering and I feel I gained more valuable life and professional lessons in this short process than from any single block thus far. (I’ll step off my soap box now.)

One of the most difficult and rewarding aspects of this One Health project was the administrative logistics. While I must credit Fiona, Jeanette, and Dr. Cheryl Scott for doing most of the heavy lifting, I was amazed at how unifying and cooperative everyone was with our project. Faculty was very supportive, as was the UC Davis medical school. However, the learning experience was just seeing what students are capable of just by taking initiative. We tried our best not to take anything for granted, and instead, we laid out everything we wanted to do, and we just waited for someone to tell us “no.” But that never came. We got doctors to help us create health surveys, find connections in Nicaragua, and accompany us on our trip. (Thanks Dr. Davis and Zielinska!)

Once we touched down in Nicaragua, we were even more amazed at how unifying One health can be. We saw first hand how much people want to work with UC Davis when given the opportunity. Just doing cold calls to veterinarians, we were given the history of the politics of Nicaragua, the health concerns of the community and vets, and contact information of even more people who could help us. Nicaraguan vet students in Leon epitomized this collaborative spirit, even asking to accompany us to Sabana Grande when they had a final exam just days later. The director of the vet school offered to move their tests because he believes collaborating with American veterinarians and students is a high priority.

In the community of Sabana Grande, the trend continued. We were treated very well by our home stay families, often eating better than they did. It enabled us to assimilate with the community as much as we could in two short weeks. We were welcomed by almost everyone - we had someone come in and translate for us for free, families rarely turned us away for surveys, and sometimes people would let us work with their animals, only to feed us handmade tortillas and coffee afterward. Our group tried to be very respectful and thank them for their hospitality.

We tried to make sure we listened as much as possible to their complaints, questions, and suggestions. This was important because this is what will help shape our future workshops, modules, and projects in the community. Although mostly a pilot study trip, we did our best to give back to the community at large. We gave a presentation at a local elementary school and gave gifts to all our homestay families.

Unfortunately, our group did have several struggles. Most strikingly, was that the medical students had no apparent desire to collaborate with us. A lot of this is because we did not have a concrete plan this year they could help us with (I don’t blame them for wanting to volcano board than conduct door-to-door surveys). The silver lining was that we did get to meet the medical students, talk with their professors, and collaborate with an MPH student, Haley McDermott. In the future, we need to reach out to the medical school earlier and with more tenacity. We need to go to THEIR campus before the trip and present our work and what we hope to accomplish. It is at these meetings, we should work to integrate veterinary medicine into their rounds presentations and recruit interested students who may want to do summer research with like-minded veterinary students.

Something dear to my heart is the cultural view of the environment and wildlife. In every community, there was major deforestation for agriculture and fuel. We were told by locals that wild animals were either eaten, or in the case of snakes and bats, killed on the spot, regardless of if they are actually dangerous. As a herpetologist, this really hurt, because snakes (and bats) are actually beneficial to people for the most part, eating many of the animals that are vectors for disease. Unfortunately, the fear of snakes is widespread, and while rattlesnakes may not bite people often, they do bite highly valued cows. I know that when I return to the Nicaragua, I hope to make environmental education and actual research a higher priority.