To Fix a Leaky Faucet

by: Tom Tietjen, MD, FACP, AGAF

From time-to-time physicians take a week or two out of their busy schedules to volunteer medical services in underserved, distressed places around the globe.  It is a way to “give back”–a tangible expression of gratitude for the advantages we Americans sometimes take for granted.  Although I would love to tell you a story about the work of volunteer doctors in Calcutta or Haiti or East St. Louis, my “working vacation” this spring was a wondrously exceptional experience.  Let me explain.

Every year, thousands of chimpanzees and monkeys are discarded by research labs, roadside zoos, and misguided souls who learn (much to their dismay) that primates make very bad pets.  Raised in captivity, these animals lack the basic survival skills of their brothers and sisters in the wild.  Having outgrown their usefulness to man, they face a bleak future, indeed.

Into this terrible void steps Eileen Dunnington Dallaire and her staff at Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville, Kentucky.  The 501(c)3 charitable organization was established in 1998 as a sanctuary where these castoffs can live in as natural an environment as possible.  Don’t be mistaken though; PRC is not a petting zoo.  They have a serious mission and visitors are not allowed.

On a limited basis, however, PRC will train volunteers to perform some of the tasks of the professional primate caregivers.  In my case it was cleaning the animals’ living spaces, cutting up food for their breakfast, and “odd jobs” like building a much-needed railing for a set of stairs and fixing a leaky faucet.  No scalpels or sutures here.  No bandages or injections.  Nobody called me doctor.

Among the many rewards of this kind of working vacation is the opportunity to directly observe the behavior of chimpanzees and monkeys over an extended period of time.  Besides a new appreciation for their intelligence and sensitivity, I was astonished that they can use mirrors to see around corners or for self-grooming.  This stark display of self-awareness in a nonhuman made me feel a bit smaller.  And perhaps that is not such a bad thing.

At the end of my visit I was physically exhausted but emotionally recharged.   I was filled with joy and hope and felt privileged to have worked side by side with professionals tirelessly devoted to providing compassionate care to creatures whose lives were previously shattered by human interference.  So what is the “take home” message:  That perhaps that you might consider skipping next year’s trip to the beach for a “working vacation” instead.  You might get a little more out of it than you think.  Anyone can make a difference.  After all, you don’t have to be a doctor to fix a dripping faucet!

Dr. Tietjen is a gastroenterologist who has lived and worked in Northern Michigan for over 20 years.  For more information about the volunteer programs offered by the Primate Rescue Center, please visit: