I arrived at the Santo Domingo airport the first time with a huge duffle bag full of donated veterinary supplies, a week's worth of work clothes (shorts, which I had never considered as appropriate attire for an equine veterinarian), and, most importantly, a spirit of adventure. After all, I was in the Dominican Republic, where things do not always go as planned, about to embark on an equitarian mission.

As I stood there waiting, it was easy to tell when the other members of Project Samana, a charitable health care project for working equids, started to arrive: All it took was a glance to recognize the excited veterinary students and the experienced veterinarians, technicians, spouses, and assistants. And, of course, all of their large duffle bags gave their identity away.

The working equids of the Dominican Republic and their owners travel far and wide to receive care from the Project Samana veterinarians.

Courtesy Icon Studios Photography/Karen Kennedy

The drive from the airport to Samana takes a few hours, plus or minus (taking into account roads or lack thereof, wrong turns, and accidents). At the hotel we unpack, freshen up, and gather for the first of our nightly meetings. Jay Merriam, DVM, and colleagues founded Project Samana 19 years ago, and since then they have developed an impeccably organized and efficient program. During these meetings we discuss the day, organize for the following day, and talk about anything that needs to be tweaked. The first night is an opportunity to get to know one another and learn the basics for Day 1. It's typically an early night so we are well-rested for a full day's work.

The first morning large and small animal teams head out to set up the small animal surgery site. By the time we arrive at the designated site, people are already lined up with their animals. Some have walked many miles, and some arrive on mopeds/motorcycles. I vividly remember one child and pet hastily arriving via the local moto-concho, which is the Dominican version of a taxi--a low-horsepower motorcycle with a large trailerlike affair attached to the back that carries a couple of people safely, but is often seen carrying six or more.

Then the large animal team goes about packing the "vet trucks." There's no mobile unit with custom-made drawers, no hose with running water. We utilize at least one pickup truck, maybe two, and some other modified SUV. Into these we load suitcases and plastic tubs full of gear, several large coolers (for medication, water and, most importantly, the mangoes we pick up along the way for sustenance). The large animal team piles in; some prefer the air-conditioned vehicle, while others (myself included) prefer to ride al fresco, on top of the equipment in the back of the pickup (which could mean we experience sunshine or torrential rain, but always wind in our hair and great scenery).

We travel to designated farms, organized by our local liaison, where we are typically greeted by a line of mules and horses. Some need to be gelded, some dewormed, and others have ailments ranging from eye injuries to withers and back sores to severe lameness. These animals do not arrive via trailer; they are ridden or ponied, sometimes a very long distance and often by small children. And it is amazing how fast the word spreads that the "American veterinarians" are here: We may start with a dozen animals, and by the end of the day we have treated three times that number.

Working with the veterinary students is one of the most rewarding parts of the trip. These students, for the most part, are accustomed to U.S. veterinary schools and all they have to offer, including advanced diagnostic equipment and tests, sterile conditions, and any medication needed. In the Dominican Republic they have to use their physical examination skills (e.g., their hands and a stethoscope). They get dirty and smelly. They might be on their knees trying to float teeth or remove screw worms from a horse's sheath. But I hear no complaints and see no hesitation. At the end of the day, they are smiling and have a sense of accomplishment.

The week flies by, despite the hot, dirty, and at times inhospitable conditions. But I have yet to encounter more appreciative clients, more deserving patients, and a better feeling at the end of the day.


Celeste Boatwright Grace, DVM, owns Sandpoint Equine PLLC, in Sandpoint, Idaho. She has participated in Project Samana three times and enjoys all types of outdoor ­adventures.

Originally published in the April issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.