Vet nurse Jen Harknett discusses her time in Carriacou, a Caribbean Island where she spent two weeks volunteering at a makeshift veterinary hospital

Vet nurse Jen Harknett is used to spending her working life in the state-of-the-art Vets Now clinic in Witham.

But her recent nursing shifts could hardly have been more different.

The “surgery” was a room on the side of a house, crucial equipment like X-rays were non-existent and locals stopped her in the street and asked for help and treatment for their pets.

The culture shock came when Jen flew to Carriacou to volunteer at the only facility providing animal care on the little Caribbean Island, which has a population of under 10,000.

It was, she admits, “a bit like going back in time” – but it moved her so much she’s now desperate to return to help again.

Jen Harkness treating a small dog
Jen temporarily swapped our Witham clinic for the Carribean island of Carriacou

Jen’s first ever job was in a veterinary practice when she was 13 and working with animals has always been her passion. She decided to pursue vet nursing while studying animal science at university and went on to qualify at Writtle College in 2014.

After doing some locum shifts at Vets Now, she knew emergency work was what she really wanted to do and joined the Essex clinic as principal nurse manager in 2017.

“The clinic has got a lot busier, which has given me the nursing challenges I want, and I’ve also taken on a clinical manager role,” said Jen.

“I love that you still get a case that comes in that you haven’t seen before so it’s always exciting.”

Jen has wanted to do volunteering work for the past few years and came across the Carriacou Animal Hospital on a veterinary volunteering site.

Covid-19 restrictions meant the trip was in doubt until just before she flew to Grenada in October, after which she had to undergo a quarantine period. She then made the hop across to Carriacou (which can only be reached by ferry or very small aircraft) and spent just over two weeks at the hospital.

An aerial image of Carriacou and the sea
Jen travelled to the Caribbean island of Carriacou which has a population of less than 10,000

It was founded more than a decade ago by American Kathy Nowell who was touched by the plight of a sick puppy and knew a facility needed to be established.

“The hospital is the downstairs of a house with the clinical area all in the one room,” said Jen. “That was the consult room and the theatre, with the kennels just crates on the veranda.

“We had no access to X-rays, blood machines and lots of the kind of kit you would normally take for granted.

“There was an anaesthetic machine so we could do some surgery, but the conditions were very basic.”

The clinic was managed by Kathy and vet Nadine, with some support from a vet technician. Otherwise, any help came from volunteers, so Jen’s nursing skills were warmly welcomed.

“The main thing we saw was poisonings,” said Jen. “It’s a big issue on the island.

“Although the clinic has helped change some attitudes, there’s still not much education about animal welfare and people just throw poisons out.

“A lot of the animals are yard dogs or are left to run free and get into trouble.

“If we got to them in time, then we could at least try to help. The poison sends their whole body into a seizure-like activity, which was quite disturbing to watch, but we could put them on fluids and give medication to try to counteract the effects.”

  1. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    Carriacou Animal Hospital from the outside
  2. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    Dogs in crates inside Carriacou Animal Hospital
  3. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    Jen treating an injured dog lying on the table in the hospital
  4. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    Jen and another member of staff operating on a dog in the hospital
  5. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    Jen and another staff member examining a dog outside on the grass
  6. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    Jen examining a small dog in the hospital
  7. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    A dog standing on the table in the hospital
  8. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    A close up of a cat being held by Jen
  9. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    Jen standing on the beach
  10. Jen's experience volunteering in Carriacou

    A view of the sky, sea and sand

General surgery days saw routine spays and neutering as well as the effects of heartworm, which is a major issue on the island due to mosquitoes.

But as she became recognised, Jen found her skills and advice were always in demand.

“You’d be walking into town to get something to eat, and people stopped you and asked for medication for heartworm or ticks,” said Jen.

“Even on non-clinic days we were on call for the poisonings and RTAs.

“Sadly, you’d also see wounds that had broken down through not being treated and dogs that had just been abandoned.

“But it really did feel that, even on a small scale, we were making a difference out there. The people were very appreciative.

“It’s a free clinic where people just make whatever donation they can, so it is having a big impact where it counts. If the hospital wasn’t there, there would be no veterinary care on the island at all.”

Jen standing with a dog cuddled in to her.
"It really did feel that, even on a small scale, we were making a difference out there. The people were very appreciative.

During the time she did get away from veterinary duties, Jen managed to do some diving in the coral reefs and enjoy the glorious beaches.

And now Jen, who is thrilled the generous Vets Now holiday allowance made it possible to take up the volunteering opportunity, hopes this won’t be her last visit.

“I love being at Vets Now,” said Jen. “I was tired the whole time when I was on days in general practice and joining the clinic has given me my life back.

“It’s also given me skills that have helped me make a real difference to people who need it thousands of miles away.

“I’m just looking at my holidays to see when I can go back and do it all again.”

Find out more about Carriacou Animal Hospital at https://carriacouanimalhospital.com/