International Travel Spotlight

Brucellosis, Rum, and Sea Turtles:
My Trinidad Externship

by Michael Neafsey

Dr. Michael Neafsey and a large sea turtle on the beach

Dr. Michael Neafsey poses with a giant sea turtle during his externship in Trinidad. 

Dr. Michael Neafsey graduated in May with his doctor of veterinary medicine degree and plans to graduate in December with his master of public health degree. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in marine science from Coastal Carolina University. In 2012, the Maryland native served as a student assistant on a college-sponsored trip to the Dominican Republic where he identified and reported public and animal health issues for the town of Punta Cana. In 2013, he concluded his senior year with a trip to Trinidad where he assisted the college and the Ministry of Food Production of Trinidad and Tobago with a brucellosis risk assessment. Neafsey also served as president of the Public Veterinary Practice Club, vice president of the Class of 2013, and was a student in the public/corporate DVM track.

During my senior year, I had a unique series of experiences and opportunities that could make other students jealous. My externship in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was just one of my international trips that year, but it was the one that will stick with me.

Dr. Valerie Ragan, director of the college’s Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine on the University of Maryland campus, was the primary reason that this experience materialized. She made an initial trip to Trinidad in November, 2012 to speak at the Caribbean Veterinary Medical Association meeting. Her trip changed focus while at that meeting to assisting the Ministry of Food Production in addressing potential brucellosis issues in Trinidad, primarily in their buffalypso herds (the buffalypso are unique to Trinidad and are a combination of several cattle and buffalo breeds).

Trinidad and Tobago had recognized that there was brucellosis in the country, but had done little to prevent its spread. Dr. Ragan suggested having a student complete a risk assessment in-country that would spark discussions about infrastructure and potential solutions.

During my senior year, I had planned to complete my Master of Public Health capstone with USDA in Yellowstone National Park where I would address brucellosis in bison and elk. My initial plan quickly changed with one phone call from Dr. Ragan asking if I could be interested in taking on the Trinidad and Tobago project. With an opportunity to travel internationally into the tropics during the wintertime, I jumped at the opportunity.

A herd of buffalypso

A herd of "buffalypso," a variety of domestic cattle unique to Trinidad.

I spent four blocks (12 weeks) working on this project. It took a lot of collaborative efforts between Dr. Ragan and Dr. Francois Elvinger, head of the Department of Population Health Sciences, to really get everything moving forward. The preparation phase felt like it took forever—I can remember spending my vacation block sitting in the college commons talking my surveys over with random classmates just to see if they understood what I was going to be asking. There was a lot of time and effort that went into preparing for the trip, but the experience there was well worth it.

I arrived in Trinidad on Easter weekend 2013, and it was scorching hot. I had exactly 30 days to conduct as many surveys as I could. I took the weekend to get settled into my apartment and to prepare for starting my work. The first night I walked to a local park and watched a cricket match. I had no idea what was going on, but the cheers from crowd that told me it was a good match. That park was where I would spend most of my nights and weekends—it gave me an outlet to talk to people and to observe how people lived and interacted. Each night about 1,000 people would walk the kilometer track on the perimeter of the park. It was a family activity and it was unlike anything I had ever seen.

My project got off to a quick start with a first meeting that included all of the government veterinarians. The government veterinarian’s job is to provide care for the country’s food animals, which differs from the U.S. in that we rely on private practitioners for the care of the animals. After surveying the veterinarians, a busy work schedule was set and I began my travels around the country.

Dr. Michael Neafsey posing in front of a Trinidad landscape

The natural beauty of Trinidad was just one of the memorable aspects of this externship.

An average day for me would be waking up around 5:30 a.m. and traveling via government courier to a Milk Depot where farmers bring their milk to be sold by weight. After surveying the farmers at the depot, I traveled to several local farms to conduct surveys. Most of the farmers ran small family farms with only a few animals here and there. Most every farm that I went to was interested in why a white foreigner from the U.S. was interested in their farm.

I was invited into many homes to try local cuisine or just to talk about how to make their farms better. I often spent the evenings traveling to a market or park to survey the general public about their knowledge of zoonoses. The conversations I had with the general public really made the trip! The people were all so genuine and were interested in learning who I was and what I do. The survey process gave me the opportunity to use what I had learned at veterinary school and to look at trends and really dive into this fixable problem that the country was having.

Fruit and vegetable market in Trinidad

This vibrant, open-air market was filled with local fresh fruits and vegetables.

The trip was not all business though; I had many personal experiences in Trinidad that I will never forget. I spent one weekend on the north shore of Trinidad. It was absolutely heaven. The surf, the rocky shoreline and the memory of the leatherback sea turtles are something I will carry with me forever. I could have spent the rest of my life on that beach; sipping rum and watching those turtles come up and lay their eggs.

At the end of my trip, Dr. Ragan flew to Trinidad to check on my progress and to assist me in presenting my preliminary findings to a group of government and international officials that included representatives from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the Pan American Health Organization, representatives from the Trinidad Ministry of Health and Ministry of Food Production, and two Chief Veterinary Officers. Although the meeting was a bit intimidating, my job was to simply present the findings of my project and to share recommendations with Dr. Ragan, who presented them to the group. I felt that her job was much harder than mine.

The three-hour meeting was the highlight of my trip. Not many students could say that they had experience presenting in front of the caliber of people that were in that room. It was a real privilege to get to know the people of Trinidad; they were a fun and warm people who were always concerned for my well-being.

I will find my way back there one day and I hope to reconnect with those who made this trip so special for me. I would like to sincerely thank Dr. Ragan and the veterinary college for granting me this opportunity and for allowing students to take part in unique opportunities during our education.