Poultry pathology: Worldwide search, year-long wait brings full-time pathologist to Willmar poultry testing lab
WILLMAR — Dr. Saad Gharaibeh grew up on his father's large chicken farm in Jordan, the Arab nation that borders Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel and Syria.
Those early years of taking care of thousands of chickens helped shape Gharaibeh's career path that led him to Willmar, where he is the first full-time pathologist to staff the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory.
Filling the position completes the goal of the lab, which underwent a $8.5 million expansion and remodeling project in response to the massive avian flu outbreak that killed millions of turkeys and chickens in the state in 2015.
The process to get a pathologist in Willmar just took a little longer than expected.
After a worldwide search, Gharaibeh was offered the job in 2016. However, glitches with visas and roadblocks for gaining entry to the United States delayed Gharaibeh's arrival for nearly a year.
After clearing legal hurdles, Gharaibeh and his wife, Razan, and their three young children arrived in Willmar this summer and he started work July 31.
"I'm loving my job," Gharaibeh said. "I like what we do here."
This isn't the first time Gharaibeh has worked in the U.S.
He was an assistant professor of avian histopathology at the University of Georgia before returning in 2011 to Jordan, where he was a professor of avian diseases and veterinary pathology.
Eager to come back to the U.S. to advance his professional career, Gharaibeh had been looking for opportunities when he heard about the Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory in Willmar.
"We're very lucky we got him," said Dr. Dale Lauer, supervisor of the lab and assistant director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
"He was our top candidate," Lauer said.
Having a pathologist on staff means that necropsies — the animal equivalent of an autopsy — can now be completed in Willmar.
In the past, producers had to transport poultry carcasses to the University of Minnesota's diagnostic lab in St. Paul.
As word has gotten out that a pathologist is now in-house, the necropsy caseload has steadily grown.
Gharaibeh examines carcasses brought in by commercial and backyard poultry producers who are looking for answers to why their turkeys, chickens, ducks, chukars or other types of poultry have died.
Because carcasses quickly deteriorate, Garaibeh said it's important to have this service available in the middle of poultry country, including Kandiyohi County, which remains the top turkey-producing county in the state.
The Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory, which also does bacteriology, serology and molecular diagnostics tests, is "exactly where it should be," Garaibeh said.
So far, he has not identified any unusual diseases but said the lab is prepared to handle challenges, such as another widespread avian influenza, in the future.
Lauer said Gharaibeh is a "tremendous asset" and provides the kind of diagnostic expertise and communication skills that are needed for the state lab, area poultry veterinarians and the poultry industry.
He said Gharaibeh's abilities have helped create an "integrated team" with the University of Minnesota and Board of Animal Health staff.
Gharaibeh said his family is embracing their new home and want to be active members in the community, including being available to help others with the Arabic language.
His wife works at the research laboratory at the University of Minnesota's Mid-Central Research and Outreach Center in Willmar.
Their children — twin girls who are 9 and a son who is 6 — are thriving at school and eager to play in the snow, he said.
"It's a big change for them," he said. "They're very excited."