I think I’ve been going to the wrong lectures

I’d be fibbing if I tried to glorify this week by saying it was amazing… because it was, mathematically speaking, very average. What’s the phrase? Regression to the mean.

In other words, the last seven days have been a hodgepodge of great highs and really, really bad lows. As a result, I can’t subjectively evaluate it as either good or bad on account of either set of events. Therefore, objectively, it’s been average.

The above is an example of how I like to break life down – scientifically. And I should hope so, too, given that I’ve committed to study for five years at one of the world’s top ten veterinary institutions under the tutelage of world leaders in clever crap like genetics.

And so I applied my mind to conclude something relatively simple: Freshers’ Week is over. I didn’t get Freshers’ Flu. I now won’t get Freshers’ Flu.

I astound myself sometimes. Yes, no prizes for guessing, I spent this entire week like something out of The Walking Dead – and I don’t see an end to it. So that accounts for a good chunk of the “What Went Wrong this Month: October Edition”.

The other chunk (might as well get the moaning out of the way first) is made up exclusively of Cell Biology. Yep. Cell Biology.

This week, my Am I Still Sane? checkpoint question was, “Am I in the right lectures? Am I even on the right course?”. This week saw a total of 8 solid hours of me and my friends using our eyes to throw these questions silently down the theatre rows. What the hell is this?

I signed up (and am paying handsomely) for this school to teach me to be a veterinary general practitioner. What I’ve experienced, particularly over the last week, is this university’s panache for molecular genetics being forcibly preached on me.

Astounding. No, I really do find molecular genetics astounding. I am constantly bowled over by the complexity, logic and beauty of the system… the very foundation of life itself and the thing that makes me a sister to every flower, tree, mammal, fish, bird, insect and… virus… on this Earth.

But right now I have other, apparently more meaningful, mountains of information to learn, and jaw-dropping-awe isn’t going to get me a degree. And their justification for this? “You might need to, say, explain to a breeder why his yellow labs had chocolate and black puppies.”

Mendelian Inheritance. I could have explained that when I was 14 years old.

But they’ve given the lectures and they will examine me on the content. So learn it I must. No doubt because I feel this way, the future will come up with some twisted way to make this knowledge useful to me and I will eat my words.

On the bright side, I was informed on Monday that I’d passed my biosecurity exam with a Pass in Hand Washing and a Good Pass in Gear Washing (from a possible: Fail, Pass, Good Pass). So I will not be taking the bus ride of shame to Langhill on Friday for the resit.

I did go to Langhill this week for another reason, though, and that was to do my ‘Cattle Handling’ session. Which involved no cattle whatsoever.

I really enjoyed that afternoon, standing in the door of a barn with a large animal vet saying, “Ah. Yes. Probably not the best place to stand you all… those of you not native to this island will soon realise that rain in Scotland has a tendency to fall horizontally.” We nodded, water pouring off our heads.

So I learnt how to make silage, the various roughage and concentrates fed to cattle, the different nutritional values of the feeds given and an overview of the different cattle farming methods and their respective needs for feeds.

But what I most enjoyed was the “Ask the cow” welfare assessment method taught to us by a young vet from the large animal hospital. We followed him round the backsides of curious cows to describe and evaluate the living conditions for each group of animals, by looking at the animals themselves and allowing them to tell us whether it was right for them. And he hashed out some fairly universal thought processes we all seemed to have.

He outlined a very real system where Holstein cows are kept indoors their entire lives, produced 10’000 litres of milk per year and are killed at 2-3 years of age. Good or bad welfare?

*Solemn shaking of heads*

Evidently a good majority of us were compelled to say that it sounded like bad welfare, me included.

“But do they know any different?” he asked, “Why do you say it’s not good?”

“Because it’s not natural.” a girl voiced my sentiments.

He stopped, and pointed to a cow in the pen chewing her cud and farting, “What is that?”

We replied, “A Holstein-Friesian.”

“Where is it from?”

“America.”

“When’s the last time you saw one of those in the wild?”

Silence… laughter… unanimous understanding… *solemn nodding of heads*

“Welfare is defined by the Five Freedoms: Freedom from fear and pain, freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom to express normal behaviour, freedom from… pain, and… I should know these, but you get the idea, it’s empirical.”

Can I just say I had a smug moment, because I recalled all of the freedoms on command at my welfare station during the interview for access into this school.

He continued, “Since welfare is defined by these freedoms, those animals had good welfare. Now whether you personally believe that it is correct, fair, morally right to keep animals like that is down to your sense of ethics. Ethics and welfare are different, and you must learn to separate them.”

Note taken.

I liked this guy, partly because his next explanation involved him eating a handful of grass and another of silage, but partly because he publicly used the phrase, “Everything is better in Yorkshire” in front of an international audience. Damn right.

But, as always, the highlight of my week was the dissections. Unfortunately, I can’t post photos of them for you, but chances are you don’t want to see a dog with her face peeled off anyway. I do, but that’s why I’m a vet student.

It was a very different scene from that of the rabbit dissection. The room was filled with dogs, and big ones at that. Rottweilers, german shepherds, mastiffs, Staffie crosses and unidentified freaky crosses, all lying on their backs with their legs sticking out. You know the way people used to paint galloping horses centuries back? Yeah, like that but upside down.

And this method of storage had left all of them with the most frightening fixed snarl on their faces. So a room of rigid, dead, snarling dogs.

One benefit of Freshers’ Flu? I couldn’t smell the death.

I was delighted to find out that I was paired with Claire, who as you might recall is the sensible-est of the Muskevets. And the last to complete the trio was a fantastically intelligent and kind girl who I’ll anonymise until I ask otherwise. What I’m trying to say, though, is that I couldn’t be happier with my dissection team.

We were given the run-down about safety and respect, and then let loose with our instructions. Our dog was a dark brindle Staffie-type bitch, and when I said ‘rigid’ further back, I mean she was rigid.

I was positioned at her head on the ventral (belly) side. And as I went to cut, her right leg was right in my face. So I went to push it out the way. Nada. Solid like a statue. So for the next couple of minutes, I created a pulley system with string to lever her stiff limb out of the way… sort of effective, but I ultimately just had to limbo.

Evidently a result of the embalming process, her facial skin was equally stiff, like it was made from tyre rubber rather than organic tissue. But it did come off in the end, and the result was… remarkably less clear than I had expected. We did manage to clean up and identify most of the mimetic muscles (muscles of facial expression), but for the Helicis.

We scraped, pulled and stretched for a good half hour, with no sign of Helicis. Eventually we asked a technician, who on the first visit said, “Ah, well it’s this little lump of cartilage here in the outer ear.” to which I said, “No, sorry sir, I said Helicis, as opposed to the Helix. Helicis… the muscle.”

“Ah, well… I will have to read up on that, one second.”

He went away to read, then returned confidently, pulled the skin from behind the ear and said, “There, that’s it.”

It was one of those moments where I thought, ‘Dude, I’m not the expert here but what you’re telling me is completely wrong.’

Looking at my team to gauge whether it was worth re-asking, we decided against it and thanked him, knowing that doing so would cause friction. So we discreetly asked a Doctor later on, who confirmed that what I had tried to identify as Helicis earlier was actually it. The real Helicis, so you know, is rostral to (in front of) the ear, categorically, which is why I could be so sure about the error when the technician pointed to a muscle caudal to (behind) the ear.

The second dissection was a success too, on a bigger fawn coloured bitch, and I enjoyed it much more because the structures were varied, coloured and defined. We took the mimetic muscles away to reveal the nerves, veins, glands and lymph nodes.

I have my last head dissection on Tuesday, and then we begin dissecting the forelimbs the week after. For now, I’ll leave you with an image from my Histology lab on Epithelia, which I find very beautiful, and the product of my feeling anatomically artistic:

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