Features

Which Doctor

peggy-and-dr-basolVolunteer vets help TCI creatures great and small.

By Katya Brightwell

Thousands of residents of the Turks & Caicos Islands, past and present, have passed through the doors of a modest ground floor office at the end of a narrow driveway in a residential area of Turtle Cove, Providenciales. Most have four legs, some have two, and all owe their health, well-being and many their lives to an extraordinary group of people who make up the Turks & Caicos Veterinary Associates.

A little different from your average veterinarian’s practice with one or two doctors and a few support staff, this innovative organisation has almost 50 practicing vets as members. They are all volunteers who spend two weeks working, unpaid, in the Islands every year. These people hold such passion for their trade that they have chosen to devote their yearly vacations to caring for the animals of the Turks & Caicos Islands, and many have been doing so since the group was established over 25 years ago.

The TCI Veterinary Associates function much like a property timeshare scheme, but with the members willingly diagnosing disease, vaccinating and performing surgery as part of their allotted vacation time. A total of 52 shares are shared between 46 members, all registered veterinarians. The share (or two) entitles them to part-ownership in the clinic in Turtle Cove, the two-bedroom house above the clinic, a car and a 17-foot motor boat (long ago named Whichdoctor in reference to the most-often-asked question about the practice). Allotted their two week stints each year (or for some, every year and a half), these dedicated vets travel at their own cost to Providenciales from their respective parts of the globe, bringing much-needed supplies of drugs to restock the clinic’s shelves, and settle themselves into their temporary home above the clinic. When here, mornings are spent treating and caring for pets of all shapes and sizes and afternoons and weekends enjoying what the Islands have to offer (although the vets are on 24 hour emergency call, too). When their time is up, they fly back home, handing the medical baton to the next vet.

The Turks & Caicos Veterinary Associates was set up in the early 1980s after members of a similar practice in the Cayman Islands were invited to the country by a few Grand Turk residents. Dr. Nancy Logue was one of these members. She recounts how the then Chief Minister, Hon. Norman Saunders, welcomed them with open arms “and within a few months the project was off the ground.”

In 1981, on their first official visit, Logue flew in to Grand Turk from the United States with fellow founding-member Dr. Dick Frame and their respective spouses, in Frame’s Beech Baron, loaded to maximum capacity with medical supplies. “The plane was so heavy that we had to take off at 5:30 in the morning when the temperature was cooler to get to altitude. I do remember we were so full that I had to take my shoes off because the space was needed for supplies,” she reminisces, smiling. “Oh to be so young again!”

The team toured the Islands performing examinations, vaccinations, heartworm tests and even surgeries. “Several days were spent spaying and neutering dogs and cats in homes on kitchen tables,” Logue recounts. At Pine Cay, microscope tests to check for intestinal worms were conducted in the sand outside the Meridian Club. “So as not to offend any of the posh guests, we worked over to one side using the umbrella tables,” Logue recalls.

The first official office of the Turks & Caicos Veterinary Associates was established in warehouse space in Turtle Cove, Providenciales not long after. It was the first veterinary practise in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Logue says it was nice to finally put things on shelves, but practice was still somewhat ad-hoc, with an adapted picnic table for surgeries. In 1985, business grew with an increase in the expatriate population on the island, and the practice moved to its current location. The green and yellow sign at the entrance to the road off Suzie Turn is still the original, with the old four-digit telephone number and the VHF call sign “Whichdoctor” for those times when mobile phones had not even graced the shores of the island.

The practise now has a modern, fully equipped clinic and is able to provide extensive medical, surgical, dental and preventive veterinary care. Patients are mostly dogs and cats, although some goats, horses, exotic birds and the odd wild bird are also known to visit. A number of the members are bird specialists, and some also deal with reptiles. Logue was, for a few years, the first and only full-time veterinarian on site. She has since left the group but a few of the original members, if they have not retired, remain.

vet-surgery-on-pine-cay-198Although a working holiday may not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing vacation, this intriguing mix of surgery and scuba-diving has attracted a wide range of vets over the years, with current members coming from as far afield as California, Alaska, Ontario and Austria. Current President of the group, Dr. James Brown of the Blue Cross Animal Hospital in New York State, explains the members’ dedication succinctly: “We are able to leave behind our busy practices and snowy weather while we vacation on the Islands. What we can’t leave behind is our compassion for animals and the people who care for them.”

Dr. Brent Hoff has been coming to the Islands for 34 years. “I had a big practise in Toronto in the 1970s,” he tells. “And in the winter, to get away from the cold, we used to fly our plane down to the Caribbean. We liked the Turks & Caicos the best!” Before the Veterinary Associates was set up, he would provide veterinary care (for free) for animals on North Caicos out of the Prospect of Whitby hotel. He then joined this practise in 1984, so he is no stranger to the working holiday concept. “Most of us can’t sit still,” he says of his profession. “We’re not the types to sit on the beach and do nothing.” Dr. Laurence Wahl, who has his own animal hospital in California, goes one step further. “I thought this would be a way to force me to take a vacation,” he says.

Drs. Paul and Jackie Frederickson have been members since 1985, joining soon after the practice was first formed. Travel down to the Islands from their home in Anchorage, Alaska is a two-day trip, but one that is still, they say, “well worth it.” Besides enjoying “the water, the beaches, the reefs, the food and dining outdoors,” they appreciate the professional challenge of keeping up with tropical parasites and diseases never found in their hometown. “We also like being here as somewhat contributing members of the community rather than just tourists,” they add.

This is a sentiment echoed by many members of the group. Some say they feel “almost local” after so many years. Many have simply fallen in love with the Islands, the people and, of course, the animals. “The biggest pleasure we have is dealing with the potcakes,” says Hoff. “They are my favourite dogs and the most loyal dogs I have met in my whole life.” Potcakes, the indigenous Turks & Caicos Islands dog, are named after the caked remnants of cooked food at the bottom of the pan – fed to the pets after a meal. “There are many island peoples in the Caribbean but to us the TIs are the best,” say Dr. Gretchen Allen and Kurt Lutgens from New York, members since 1994. “What better than to try and give back something by helping their pets and the island potcakes.”

The Veterinary Associates practise is very popular – the timeshare concept works – and pages of the Veterinary Journal are reportedly scoured by many for people selling their shares. Dr. Jasen Trautwein from Texas “stumbled upon” the practise when he came to Providenciales with his family on holiday as a vet student in 2000. He was “sold” by the timeshare concept but had to wait until 2006 to buy his first share and his second a year later. “Life is so busy, it’s hard to make plans in advance, but now I have to go to Provo . . . for my kids to grow up getting a chance to visit every year is a pretty amazing thing.”

vet-ryleeDr. Terry Fisk, brought down for the first time from Canada by Dr. Hoff on his latest visit to help with surgeries, was converted to the working holiday idea immediately. “I had never heard of the Turks & Caicos Islands, but I am considering moving here after just three days on Providenciales.” Many of the vets have introduced their friends to the Islands too, bringing them down to stay in the house and enjoy the view of the ocean.

The clinic and the adjoining house are a constant commotion of arrivals and departures, packing and unpacking, kids, guests and all. But amongst this hubbub is the steady and experienced continuity of the only paid employee of the practise – Peggy Perkins. Although officially the group’s veterinary technician, the hats she wears are many. As well as normal technician duties, including assisting the vets as they carry out their work, giving vaccinations, doing blood work and caring for recovering animals, she manages the practise and acts as general concierge to new and returning vets. As if that is not enough, she even ran the front desk until Jaliyllah Rosati dutifully stepped in as volunteer just over a year ago.

Described by Dr. Allen as “the heart and soul of the Turks & Caicos Veterinary Associates,” to many, Peggy is the Veterinary Associates. People on the island are known to say they are taking their pets to “Peggy’s” rather than to “the Vets.” And although she is embarrassed to admit it, the driveway to the clinic – Peggy Lane – is actually named after her, a surprise present from some of the vets in appreciation of the work she does.

Peggy is animal lover extraordinaire who lives and breathes compassion for her patients. A chance working vacation from her home in Pennsylvania with her former boss (then a member) in 1985 led to meeting her husband Scott, and she eventually moved to Providenciales in 1990. She has been working at the practise in Providenciales ever since. The Veterinary Associates’ current President, Dr. James Brown, praises her work. “Her unwaivering devotion to the animals has eased untold pain and suffering,” he says. “Her professional and interpersonal skills allow a practise such as ours to exist.”

Peggy has nothing but praise for the vets that are part of the Veterinary Associates. “You have to be a special kind of person to do the volunteer work as a vet here. It’s like a cook cooking in someone else’s kitchen. And I’m there to guide them through – where the drugs are, where this is, that is, how we do this here, what’s acceptable here and not acceptable here.” She says she has a lot of “family” through the group too – in some cases having seen children grow from toddlers to college-goers. She jokes that, with all these vets coming and going, working here has enabled her to learn 36 ways to carry out a single procedure. “There are many paths to the right answer,” she says, stoically.

Modest about her talent and knowledge, she has seen the practise develop from a warehouse space where surgeries were performed on a picnic table to the fully-equipped clinic that it is today.  “We have a brand new X-ray machine, a state of the art dental machine, an anesthesia machine, blood monitors, anaesthetic monitors, cardiac monitors . . . some of the vets that come down say that we have more equipment than they do! It’s amazing how we have evolved over the years,” she says.  “For the most part we are able to handle most anything that comes our way.”

Roughly 2,000 humans are registered at the vets, some with well over your average one dog/one cat quota. The working holiday concept means that opening times are limited and the clinic is always busy. “Peggy and Jaliyllah work their tails off, and we fit a full day’s work into a few hours – we’re all jumping,” says Jasen Trautwein.

Peggy has known many of the island pets since they were kittens and puppies. After 18 years, those that she has helped turn into healthy and happy dogs and cats are now coming to the end of their lives, and it is her job to help put these sick pets down when necessary. “And I feel it too,” she laments. She has sad days such as these, and then special days “when you can save something.” She recounts a story of a C-section on a cat which produced kittens pronounced dead by the doctor. “I said, ‘Are you sure?’ and he said ‘yes.’ I couldn’t just throw them in the trash, so I wrapped them in a towel and came back after a meeting to deal with them. As I walked in the clinic. I heard a tiny ‘miaow.’ One had lived. I bottle fed her and she lives with me to this day.”

“Every day is unpredictable,” Peggy adds, smiling. “One day, a woman from California invited me outside to meet her iguana. It was eight feet long and on a leash. I even had a flamingo live in my bathtub for a while.” She loves her job. “I get to help so many people on the island. Otherwise, what would I do?”

Like the veterinarians, this is more than a job to Peggy. She jokes that she needs cuts in the vet bill with her pets at home (three Jack Russells, a Great Dane, a parrot, eleven cats and two ponies) but in fact, this is her passion and her life.

When the members and Peggy meet once a year at the American Animal Hospital Association conference, they talk business but they also reminisce. “When we meet together as a group, our memories and shared stories surround a fracture repair on a potcake, heartworms diagnosed and treated, or a Christmas Eve laceration repair,” says Dr. Brown.

Although Providenciales has changed almost beyond recognition since the Veterinary Associates founding members set up shop over 25 years ago, the animals have not. In fact, says Dr. Hoff, their needs have become even greater. Many diseases endemic in the Caribbean have been kept out of the Turks & Caicos Islands due to excellent preventative veterinary care, but a tragic outbreak of canine distemper last year saw a large number of the island potcakes affected. This struck a chord with all of the visiting vets and only served to strengthen their reason for volunteering. “Our mission is to provide the Islands with the best veterinary care available. We strive to become 1% better . . . every day,” states Dr. Brown.

weighingIn the early days, when fewer people meant things were a little slower, the practise used to provide care for animals on the other islands on a regular basis. Now the clinic is too busy (although Dr. Hoff still manages to find “free time” to visit North Caicos and carry out vaccinations there). There was talk of expanding but ultimately, if hours were extended, the whole ethos of the practise would be lost. Dr. Wahl enjoys being called for an emergency as he emerges from the water after a dive off French Cay, Dr. Trautwein enjoys surfing the swell in between caring for the new government’s new “drug dogs,” and Dr. Allen enjoys chasing a screeching parrot around the back room before relaxing for the afternoon with her friends.

Perhaps slightly ironically, the house above the clinic that has provided shelter to these vet volunteers for so many years has been eaten by termites and is now being re-built. Although these insects may not have shown their appreciation for the visiting animal lovers of the Veterinary Associates, it is certain that the thousands of cats, dogs, birds (and even that iguana) who owe their well-being to these volunteers would all rouse in swarms of gratitude if they could.

But they can’t. So the people must. And this admirable organisation will be able to continue for at least another 25 years to come. As Nancy Logue says about her work, “There’s no better feeling than when you really love what you do and then feel the appreciation that others feel for your passion.”



7 Comments

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Pegeen Thornton
Jul 2, 2010 17:31

In 1998 I was lucky enough to meet Peggy(I worked for a 7 vet practice at the time) I took a picture and when I returned in 2001 I left it with a vet and his wife who had just arrived to give to Peggy who was off that day.We returned with family in 2002 and I didn’t get a chance to go by then.

We are returning to Provo May 8th 2011 for a week and I would love to get together with her and her husband.Please give her our e-mail address and ask her to contact us. We love the islands and the belongers and are counting down the days till our long delayed return!!(210 days and a wake up…not that we are counting!!LOL)

Rebecca Rylance
Apr 2, 2011 23:57

Jaliyllah! How wonderful to read about this veterinary hospital and that you’re involved in it! If you’re on line please get in touch! My measly efforts at occasional holiday cards aren’t too great. I’d love to hear about your life and times. Best to Mike. I’ve been working in a different medical field–in a veterans’ home in Truth or Consequences for the past 11 years. Can hardly believe that I’m coming up on retirement at year end. Of course, I’ll keep working, but it will be very good to complete this long assignment I’ve been on. I live in Caballo, 20 miles south of Truth or Consequences (which has the best hot springs I’ve ever experienced and is the reason I moved there) across from Caballo Lake and the Caballo Mountains. It’s the Rio Grande dammed up for dozens of miles and is very beautiful. Elephant Butte lake is about 25 miles north, the same deal, and is larger and more famous as a vacation/camping/boating spot. I’m a New Mexican now. Although I love to visit California to see two of my sisters I seem to travel there less and less. Flying to Columbia, South Carolina to visit Mom is even more challenging. She is doing pretty well in her 87th year. Again, what a perfect dovetailing of vocation and vacation for the veterinarians. Please, please, please contact me and tell me about your life. Sounds like you and the job found each other. much, much love and honor, mecca.

Curtis Padilla
Jun 2, 2011 13:35

Sounds wonderful. Is there an email address for the Turk &Caicos Veterinary association?

Dr. Ron Moore
Aug 15, 2011 10:52

Hello there I would like to get some more information about the Turks and Caicos Veterinary Association,
Please forward to my email address at docronmoore@hotmail.com
ovc 99

Laurence Wahl, D.V.M.
Aug 19, 2011 15:18

I have been a member since 1991. If you have questions about the practice you could contact me at lgvh@sbcglobal.net or the practice itself at tcivets@tciway.tc

Larry Adelman DVM
May 27, 2014 10:43

I recently spent time in TandC and have visited pot cakes.

I would be very interested in joining the group of veterinarians providing their time and expertise with your group.

Please let me know if shares are still available and/or if there is a waiting list.

I am a licensed Canadian veterinarian
Graduated from Western College of Veterinary Medicine , university of Saskatoon in 1981
I currently own and operate a busy ,modern veterinary hospital
As well , I provide in home end of life procedures to all residents of my home town, Winnipeg Mb. Canada
Population 650,000

Please contact me at my work email above or at Larryadelman1@gmail.com

I am a very good and current veterinarian with tremendous people skills and a huge amount of compassion for pets and their owners.

Please advise (and I apologize for blowing my own horn)
Larry

Kelly Greene
Apr 20, 2016 11:36

Hey Peg how r you love you been looong time hope you get this how’s Bec

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