In March, Dr. Matt Stachmus took a vacation - sort of. It also was a business trip - sort of.
For several years, Stachmus has made almost yearly trips to places like Haiti, Guatemala and Honduras with Seattle-based Christian Veterinary Mission to care for pets and livestock in those countries' remotest areas.
This time, the Pleasant Valley Animal Hospital veterinarian worked for 10 days in Nicaragua, mostly spaying and neutering animals as well as deworming and vaccinating sheep, goats, pigs, horses and cows.
Although he had to be able to work with all species to become a veterinarian, Stachmus said cows are "really not my forte," whereas the other two vets on the trip, one of whom came with Iowa State University veterinary school students, specialized in livestock.
The trip was a chance for the students to get hands-on experience, Stachmus said, and a chance to help the Nicaraguan community.
Without much money, Nicaraguans use livestock as currency, Stachmus said. Many give their yearly tithe to the church at El Espavel with cows, and animals are both companionship and survival tools, providing milk, food and leather.
Although Stachmus said his family is "long overdue" for a beach vacation, he looks forward to the trip every year and sees it as his way of answering his Christian calling to help.
Before attending veterinary school, Stachmus was stationed in Guatemala from 1995 to 1998 with the Peace Corps, where he met his wife, Ana.
They both share a love of travel and community service, he said, and, over time, they become close with mission administrators and local residents for whose animals he cared for and treated. That connection drives him to return to places like Haiti, where he went three of the last four years.
"I want to help my friends," Stachmus said.
Stachmus also said going to Central America was a way of forming cross-cultural connections and for people to learn about each other and strengthen their faith.
He said he thinks his blessings have been given so that he can pass them on to others. His family helps pick up the slack at the office while he's away, and his wife cares for his two children in diapers.
The veterinarian group was assisted by Altoona Regional Health System, whose engineering, operating and pharmacy departments donated supplies for the vets to use.
Nick Genovese, Altoona Regional's pharmacy director, said departments across the hospital help out regularly for several different missions trips.
Sometimes the hospital makes a decision to support a humanitarian mission, he said, usually promising supplies worth up to a certain amount of money.
"We give them what they ask for," he said, as long as the amount falls within state and federal guidelines.
Genovese said it feels good to be contributing in any way possible, even when hospital workers aren't the ones making far-away trips.
"It feels good. ... You are helping," he said.
Stachmus said he doesn't know what next year's trip will be, but added that anyone who is interested can go, even without veterinary experience. They will find a use for enthusiastic volunteers, he said.