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DVM grad focuses on diverse opportunities in One Health arena

This article is the second of a monthly series highlighting strategic areas in the OVC Healthy Futures Strategic Plan 2022.

Our graduates are entering a global community that has evolved and expanded, creating new scopes of practice and career opportunities. Key objectives of the Learning Pathways: Enhancing the Student Experience area will ensure our graduates are career-ready, entrepreneurial, and on the leading edge of veterinary science and medicine. It will include preparing all our graduates for diverse career opportunities, as well as engaging and training more students in One Health fields.

Vets assess gorilla in forestOVC 2014 grad Emily Denstedt ​​​​​​at work with Gorilla Doctors in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest assessing Buzinza, a female gorilla, to evaluate an arm injury and take radiographs with a portable machine.

One Health has always been of interest for Emily Denstedt with wildlife and ecosystem health a particular passion. But even she probably didn’t envision bringing the two together on another continent – working to enhance community healthcare and, by extension, wildlife health.

The OVC 2014 grad worked in various wildlife settings, with marine mammals and local wildlife on her way to a degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College.

While Denstedt knew she wanted the clinical skills veterinary medicine offers, “I wasn’t always sure what direction I wanted to take my career in regard to helping wildlife and ecosystem health.”

It turned out this encompassed both veterinary medicine and public health.

She followed her DVM training with a small animal rotating internship at OVC’s Health Sciences Centre and further honed her skills with a mix of emergency and general practice in the London, Ontario, area before beginning the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at OVC in 2016.

An mportant piece of the five-semester MPH program is a practicum, geared to the student’s particular interests. From the beginning, Denstedt knew she wanted her practicum to bring together her passion for One Health and wildlife in some way. She found the perfect combination in Rwanda with a project focused on the rural area surrounding Volcanoes National Park and the Gorilla Doctors project.

Mountain Gorilla Veterinary ProjectThe world renowned Gorilla Doctors and Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project is dedicated to saving the lives of criticallyendangered mountain gorillas living in Africa. Dr. Mike Cranfield, OVC 1977, is co-director of Gorilla Doctors and project director for the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.

The close proximity of the forest and rural area means gorillas and people live virtually side-by-side, notes Denstedt. The health of both are tied intricately together. Improving the health of people and livestock that live or work in close proximity to the National Park and, by extension, helping to prevent the transmission of infectious disease to gorillas, is a large focus of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.

“There aren’t many physicians in this rural area and many communities often lack basic necessities such as clean water, which significantly impacts the health of local people,” says Denstedt. “The mountain gorillas are frequently in close proximity to people, which increases the risk of a sick person introducing a disease that could dramatically impact gorilla population numbers.” Improving the health of the local community not only reduces the risk of pathogen transmission to gorillas, but it builds goodwill and trust, potentially motivating the community to partner in conservation efforts.

Community nurses are the backbone of healthcare in these rural areas. The nurses work in village health centres surrounding the park and deal with everything that comes their way, notes Denstedt. They rely heavily on continuing education to enhance their skills.

Another organization at work in Rwanda, Docs4GreatApes, founded by OVC 1981 grad Dr. Rick Quinn, is committed to improving the health of Great Ape populations and the communities that surround their habitat by offering continuing professional development (CPD) to nurses in the area.

Quinn, along with a group of Western University (UWO) faculty, found that frontline community nurses were interested in more continuing education opportunities in psychiatry, obstetrical emergencies, ophthalmology, and emergency care of the critically ill. A UWO MPH student administered a baseline survey to nurses at health centres surrounding Volcanoes National Park last year to evaluate their current knowledge in ophthalmology and to ask what they felt were the best methods to teach continuing education.

Denstedt’s MPH project tackled the next step. “Because this is a One Health project and underlying all of this is gorilla and wildlife conservation, we decided to start with nurses who work close to gorilla habitat and treat people who live closest to that environment.”

Denstedt’s task – teaching primary eye care to community nurses. In total, Denstedt taught the four-day course to 10 groups of nurses, 55 in total, at the Gorilla Doctors headquarters.

Was it odd being a veterinarian teaching about human eye health? For the most part, human eyes are not that much different than a dog’s eye and encounter the same kinds of problems, including bacterial conjunctivitis, trauma, and tumours, notes Denstedt.

While Denstedt’s work had a public health focus, her clinical training was often also requested to assist with the gorillas’ care, including going into the Democratic Republic of Congo one day to ultrasound a gorilla.

Denstedt finished her project at the end of last summer, but has returned to Rwanda this winter to work with the Gorilla Doctors in restructuring the Gorilla Conservation Employee Health Program for people whose jobs take them into the forest, including the trackers, guides, researchers and porters.

While she’s not sure yet what’s next, she knows for certain One Health will remain an important piece of her future as a veterinarian.

“I think the MPH program and the experiences that I’ve had in Rwanda opened my eyes to the novel career paths that are available for veterinarians,” she says. “There are so many areas in public health where we will need veterinarians, especially in the face of the things our planet will experience in the coming years. It’s important to have veterinarians involved in a lot of big issues that are coming our way.”

Alternate careers for veterinarians don’t have a clearly defined path, she notes. “If you want to be a surgeon you need to complete an internship and usually a second internship as well as a surgical residency, so that is very well defined,” she adds.

“Veterinarians doing the type of work I am doing in Rwanda don’t fit into the same sort of scenario - not everyone takes the exact same path to get where they want to go with their career.”

(Read more aboutBuzinza's care on the Gorilla Doctor's website.)