VETSOL – Sr Dagmar Atkinson

Dagmar Atkinson, founder of VETSOL: miracle and saviour

Meet Sister Dagmar Atkinson—founder of VETSOL— a solution and saviour for both Daggie and thousands of animals simultaneously. 

I have known German people most of my life: some dear and cherished friends and some irrevocable enemies. Without submitting to cultural stereotypes, the German folk I’ve known have all been driven by a force; a powerful work ethic, a moxie and an ambition to do things properly. 


Sadly, I am not often inspired by the human race (apart from the incredible people who I interview for VetNurseView articles, of course!), but have to admit that when I first met Sister Dagmar, something of the green-eyed monster lurked in my subconscious and I coveted her knowledge and skill. She was confident and capable; a truly valuable nurse.


In 2006, I was the manager and resident vet nurse at a companion animal welfare clinic close to Soweto in Gauteng. I had qualified as a vet nurse four years earlier and spent most of my time in middle Africa working with chimpanzees and other wildlife. In my opinion, welfare nurses learn an entirely different set of skills than private practice nurses and, before meeting Dagmar, I thought I knew a bit!  


The welfare clinic did not have a full-time vet; we sent surgical cases to the local private vet and our bills were monstrous. We had dozens of animals that needed to be sterilised urgently. My director contacted VETSOL and they came all the way from the Cape to help.


Dagmar founded VETSOL in the previous year (2005) with Dr Desmond Stafford and they were here to work. Like a whirlwind and a tornado—Daggie being the latter—they made a light afternoon of about 40 dogs and 20 cats. Dr Des was sterilising large dogs at the 8-minute mark and Dagmar had to anaesthetise and prepare them in time to feed his insatiable appetite. 


In my experience as a nurse, I believe that successful treatment of an animal— especially for procedures that are uncomfortable for pets—requires at least two people. A handler ensures the pet is calm and comfortable whilst ensuring that the person—who is occupied with the uncomfortable part—is safe from harm. Dr Des was occupied with surgery so Daggie had to learn how to get on with things without that type of support. Thanks to her medical knowledge and the experience gained from repetition, she instinctively knew what dosages of pre-medication and anaesthetic drugs to administer. A fat and a thin dog that weigh the same have very different reactions to anaesthetics and Daggie was an expert on this subject. No sooner had Dr Des tied his last stitch when the animals started waking from the anaesthetic.

Sedating an aggressive dog can be tricky, but Daggie learnt how to saunter past and administer an injection like a scene from ‘The Matrix’ before the animal even realised it was happening. She could even place an endotracheal tube in her patients without assistance.


On top of the physical demands, Daggie managed the logistical processes for VETSOL. This included navigating the SAVC and government regulations as well as all the admin and planning that went with their enterprise. She was a machine and I stood watching in awe.

The Good Old Days

I chat to Daggie about her early qualification from Onderstepoort. She was studying vet nursing in the early 1980s and I was surprised to learn that the University Diploma in Veterinary Nursing was offered for the first time in 1977. When Sr Dagmar attended Onderstepoort, there was very little in the way of practical training for nurses. True to her nature, she saw an opportunity for growth, undertook a Diploma in Tertiary Education at ‘Tuks’( University of Pretoria) and lectured in medical nursing at the faculty.

To call it foundational work is an understatement. Animal dentistry was a brand new field of expertise; nurses and vets were only beginning to learn about manual scaling, polishing and extracting. There was zero in the realms of specialised dental X-ray equipment too. Ultra-sound was also in its infancy and printed records were stored on microfiche (a transparent card used to store printed information in miniaturised form). The microfiche reader had a powerful lens that magnified documents and displayed them on a screen. X-ray development was still manual and only possible in a dark room where nurses were exposed to toxic chemicals regularly.

I studied at Onderstepoort about 15 years later. By that time massive strides had been forged in the dental and ultrasound fields but we were still forced to huddle in the dark room while the carcinogens in the developing chemicals sloshed about, infusing our bodies. 

Daggie worked as a lecturer at Onderstepoort for two years and thanks to her fabulous medicine knowledge took a job with FisherVet as a sales rep; in those years it was the only company distributing veterinary medicine in South Africa. She was the nurse who had taught many vets to insert their first IV catheters and so knew all of her vet clients personally. “They were fabulous times,” she recalls. 

A Fresh Start

In the early 1990s, Daggie worked for Jansen Pharmaceuticals which sent her to the USA to learn about vaccines. After moving to the Cape in 1994, she continued as a sales rep and locum in various practices in Somerset West and Stellenbosch. 2003 brought two heavy blows; retrenchment and divorce, and she started working for the Animal Welfare Society Helderberg (AWS-H). Her work in welfare brought home a nasty truth: over 80% of pets in this country never have the luxury of veterinary care. The thought of overpopulation and suffering spurred her to take action once again. 


One evening, she sat around a table with German veterinary students who were working with the AWS-H and together they visualised a team that would travel to indigent communities around South Africa to provide primary health care and mass sterilisation. A friend was prepared to donate a truck and funding and so the VETSOL (The Vetsol Trust) journey began. She says, “VETSOL saved my life. I was retrenched and divorced and I needed direction. When we discussed the possibility of bringing veterinary care and mass sterilisation to the neediest, it was like a light went on in the dark tunnel.” 


Dagmar had worked with Dr. Stafford at the AWS-H and with the financial and physical support from the German vet students they ventured forth. VETSOL was established as an NPO (Non-profit organisation) and PBO (Public benefit organisation). To operate under this banner in South Africa, a board of trustees, annual reports and audits are required but, knowing Dagmar, she sailed through the red tape in her usual, efficient way.


“In those days, the concept of a mobile veterinary clinic was entirely new to the SAVC (South African Veterinary Council) and new rules had to be created specifically.” An organisation of this nature could only operate if one of the trustees was a registered vet with a fixed practice. After all the administration and hoop-jumping, the truck proved to be a white elephant. Daggie says, “It was just impractical; very cramped and nowhere to put the dogs during recovery.” They decided that it would be wiser to travel to fixed venues like community halls or to animal welfare organisations that did not have resident vets and where they could keep an eye on their patients and be of service to more animals at one venue.


Dr Stafford was the registered vet for VETSOL for 4 years after which Dr Lesley I’Ons, one of the trustees of VETSOL, agreed to step up. 


In the early part of 2000, The Sterilisation for Pets Trust provided funding for a large proportion of VETSOL’s work. Daggie and her team visited Kleinmond, Villiersdorp and Grabouw. She also undertook the mammoth task of writing tenders (a lengthy and complicated process) to secure funding. The National Lotteries Commission of South Africa and the Theewaterskloof Municipality have provided some funding over the years. 

Into the Future

Mostly, VETSOL is approached by animal welfare organisations that have raised funds and can host Daggie and her team. The Karoo Animal Protection Society (KAPS) has used VETSOL to do outreach for hundreds of animals that rarely see a vet or a nurse. More recently, the City of Cape Town’s mass sterilisation initiative has provided funding for members of the Cape Animal Welfare Forum to host mass sterilisation events across the Cape. VETSOL has been one of the forces responsible for countless sterilisations under this programme.


VETSOL is also a beneficiary of the National Sterilisation Project which channels funding to mass sterilisation events and organisations. In 2021, they wrote that Dagmar and her team have been responsible for the sterilisation of 25 000 animals since inception. The current count for VETSOL is 54 239 sterilisations.


I still stand in awe of a human being who has made such an impact on the world. My jealousy comes from wishing I could achieve a fraction of what Daggie has in her lifetime. Surprisingly though, this force of nature is not even close to giving up yet either.


What does Dagmar do for fun? She propels boats through the water with her restless energy! She is the Chairwoman for the Elgin Grabouw Country Club and sits on the committee for the Elgin Rowing Club. In 2014 she competed in the World Masters Regatta in Australia and won 2 gold medals in separate mixed events. She has recently competed at the World Masters Rowing Regatta at Roodeplaat Dam. 


Daggie’s mantra is ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ and when I ask her what the future holds, her response is simple. “The day that I cannot work anymore is the day you will put me in my coffin.”

My father always said, “An idle brain is the devil’s workshop” and I have often reflected on his words. If a brain is filled with intelligence, hope, enthusiasm, passion and ideas and a body is strong, happy and vital, the result can change lives. Sr Atkinson is a testament to this and the world is a better place because of her.



©Liz Roodt

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