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2008-09 Schweitzer Fellow Amy Vlazny talks with young students about responsible pet care.

2008-09 Tufts-Schweitzer Fellow Amy Vlazny talks with young students about responsible pet care.

If he had “only” inspired fellow physicians to work with those in need, Albert Schweitzer still would have left one heck of a legacy. But Schweitzer touched so many other realms (and pursuits) of society: he was a physician/humanitarian/ musician/author/Bach scholar/theologian/philosopher/anti-nuclear activist/Nobel Peace Prize winner (phew!) whose philosophy of “reverence for life” laid the groundwork for modern environmentalism (Rachel Carson dedicated Silent Spring to him) and the animal welfare movement.

There are far fewer veterinary schools than medicals schools, but over the past few years, several vet student Schweitzer Fellows have lived out the latter part of Schweitzer’s legacy.

Amy Vlazny, a student at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, is one of those Fellows, and she is committed to expanding the reach of veterinary medicine into communities in need. 

After graduating with a B.A.  from Washington University in St. Louis, Vlazny joined the Peace Corps and worked as an animal production program volunteer in Ecuador, then returned to the U.S. to work as a veterinary technician before entering vet school. 

As a second-year vet student and a 2008-09 Tufts-Schweitzer Fellow (her Fellowship was sponsored by Tufts’ Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service), Vlazny worked with the Animal Rescue League (ARL) of Boston to address the need for language-appropriate resources and services related to companion animal health, care, and welfare in Boston’s Latino communities. Through visiting English classes for Spanish speakers, she conversed with pet owners and other community members to determine the best ways for the animal health and welfare sectors to engage the Spanish-speaking population.  Vlazny also translated several of the ARL Boston’s informational materials into Spanish for publication and distribution at the shelter, veterinary clinic and subsidized spay/neuter clinic. 

And that wasn’t all: Vlazny also worked with the ARL of Worcester to organize a free pet vaccination clinic at the Worcester Housing Authority, a low-income housing development with primarily elderly and immigrant residents.  She led a group of student and vet volunteers in running the one-day clinic, where over 100 animals were vaccinated.  Thanks to a successful first clinic, Tufts students plan to make this a long-term relationship with Worcester Housing Authority and Worcester Animal Rescue League.

“Over the course of the [Fellowship] year, the organization has become increasingly aware of the connections between social disparities and companion animal health gaps,” Vlazny says. “For example, ARL has begun GIS studies to follow, among other things, where deceased stray cats are being found in highest frequencies.  Interestingly, the Boston neighborhoods with the highest feline mortalities are the same that show high levels of infant mortalities as well as other indicators of poverty.” (One of those high-risk areas is Dorchester — and this past June, ARL offered a subsidized feline spay/neuter and vaccination clinic there for the first time.)

As a Schweitzer Fellow, Vlazny says she “had the responsibility, new to me, of representing my profession among a group of aspiring professionals in a variety of fields centered around human health.  It was eye-opening and inspiring for me to learn about their perceptions of veterinary medicine and their interest in learning about the diversity of the veterinary field.  (I will never forget another Fellow’s comment to me when we met at the orientation last year: ‘Wow!  I’ve never met a real vet student before!’)”

“I hope that I was able to share with the Fellows a broadened definition of healthy people and communities, as those that respect and embrace the interrelationships between the health of all forms of life,” says Vlazny. “At the same time, through talking with my vet school classmates about the projects I was working on as a Schweitzer Fellow, I realized that I also felt a responsibility to become an ambassador within my profession for the elimination of health disparities.” 

Vlazny explains, “My inspiration to begin this project was based on my observations, when working as a veterinary technician before starting vet school, of a lack of effective veterinarian-client communication across language and cultural barriers.  As a Fellow, I came to welcome my newfound responsibility to promote, within the veterinary community, sensitivity toward and active response to the social disparities that impact the health and welfare of animals cared for in a diversity of communities.”

To read about Albert Schweitzer’s connection to animals, read “Animals, Nature, and Albert Schweitzer” by Ann Cottrell Free — it’s available on Google Books. To purchase hard copies, contact ptaddoni@bidmc.harvard.edu.

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