Of Mice & Men (And Sometimes Rabbits)

So it’s the countdown to the big February exams, and this train isn’t slowing down for anyone! This week has been almost completely focused on embryology and hindlimb anatomy, with an ALFS exam shoehorned into the middle.

Last week, we left off embryology with a blastula. Monday’s lecture took that blastula and saw it ‘gastrulate’. If that word sounds familiar, it’s because it’s got the same root as ‘gastric’, due to the appearance of the embryo resembling a little stomach… at least to the scientist who named it. I don’t really see it myself.

Either way, gastrulation is followed by neurulation, where the early spinal column forms and the nervous system starts to appear. This lecture also addressed formation of the limbs and face. At this point, we turned our attention to two specific layers of cells, the mesoderm and endoderm, to watch what they get up to over time, including how they go on to form all those membranes that surround the little alien. Finally, we rounded it off on Friday by looking at the genetics of axis formation, which demonstrates how the embryo knows which way is its head, tail, left, right, thumb, little finger, etc.

By the end of the week, we had an embryo, perhaps now old enough to be called a foetus. Up until this point, most animals have developed in very similar ways, and are visually quite indistinct from one another. We’d seen images of chickens, newts and turtles, but largely of Mice and Men. Just as the complex and frankly beautiful process came to a close, we were given one final lecture on Teratology. So, teratology is the study of abnormal development, and the lecture was delivered by a lady who got way too excited about the prospect of seeing deformed births. “Please, please take pictures when you’re assisting – it’s so exciting when it happens!” she begged us repeatedly throughout the hour.

The first time she asked, I was thinking, ‘Sure! Good learning experience, definitely will.’

After the fifth or sixth time, I was trying to work out what flavour of personality disorder she had.

But in the middle of all this embryology, there was another MCQ exam, for Animal Life & Food Safety. It started deceptively nicely, and I did that thing where you go “Huh, what was I worried about? I know all of these”. But then it moved on to a sizeable section on stuff I didn’t really know, because sometimes you gotta decide what and what not to learn! Argh.

Mercifully, MCQ exams are followed by an immediate feedback session, where you keep a copy of your responses and mark them against the answers, which gives you a good idea of what your mark will be. And I’ll wait until they go live, but safe to say I’m very pleased with how it went.

The rest of the bulk of the week was dissection of the hindlimb of the dog. When we walked in on Monday afternoon, it was to a room of unfamiliar dogs. We knew it, the second we stepped through the door. It’s funny, how you get to know the ‘personalities’ of the dogs in your room; you know the fat ones, the watery ones, the ones with short legs, the ones with manky feet… the ones with enormous gonads. They take on a persona that’s distinctive. But I didn’t realise that I had any attachment to these personae until they gave us foreign dogs. The other group’s dogs.

Shock horror.

As each student came in, they all commenced the same routine of wandering silently through the rows of cadavers, staring at the unfamiliar bodies. Like, I know it shouldn’t matter, because we get a different one each session, but somehow it felt slightly offensive. They dissected our dogs.

We ended up with a gorgeous blue male staffie who had nice muscular legs. Jackpot. What we didn’t realise was that the sheer bulk of his muscles, and the fact that they’re stiff and contracted with prolonged preservation, meant that they were almost impossible to move out of the way when we wanted to see deeper structures. In the end, we resorted to removing fist-sized chunks of muscle. Well, where there’s a will…!

We had a different problem with the next dog, a small barrel-shaped female bulldog. Aside from the mould growing between her toes (yeah), she had short legs that were wet and sloppy in texture. I used to think I was getting more and more picky about what quality I wanted my specimen to be in. Now I realise they’re all just getting more and more past their sell-by date.

Friday’s dissection was a little different, however, and my wish for better bodies came true. Because I’m friends with the most punctual person that I’ve ever met, Claire and I arrived in the dissection room way before everyone else. Our tutor was in there putting her lab coat on, and we entered to a room full of rabbits.

Some kind of impulse to tell Dad jokes in the absence of my actual Dad made me say, “Huh, these are small dogs!” and then cringe so hard that I wanted to climb into the carcass bag and never come out. Why do I say these things?

Either way, it was one rabbit between two, and due to our timely arrival we had pick of the litter. Settling on a medium-sized black rabbit, we watched the demonstration and began making surgical-style incisions at the hip and stifle joints. On the dogs, we had been completely skinning the area of interest, but our tutor wanted us to practice looking at structures through a smaller hole. We began by making these small 5cm incisions, but there’s only so far skin can stretch, and eventually we gave in, gradually extending the incision to get a better look. In the end, the hip incisions would have sufficed for laryngeal surgery I reckon.

It was so liberating to have a fresh animal, everything was soft and life-like. No more mopping up sloppy disintegrated back-fat or wiping ancient faeces on your friend’s sleeve (sorry Claire). Having excavated the hip joint, in order to see the deeper ligaments we agreed that dislocation was the only course of action. After completely dislocating the hip of this rabbit, we moved on to its knees.

The knees were trickier. I knew this because I spent disproportionate amounts of time leaning over the instructions, going back to my knee and then leaning back again, shouting, “What? This doesn’t make any sense. Claire, what does it say in the book? These instructions are terrible. What? ‘Be sure to observe the medial and lateral collateral ligaments’. What does that mean, Claire?  Can I cut them or not? I want to cut them. I’m going to cut them.”

To be honest, my approach after so many dissections is, ‘if in doubt, cut it off’. We often look back and remember how terrified we used to be of taking things off with the skin by accident, or damaging structures by mistaking them for fascia. Now we walk in, sit down and begin stripping the skin back like it’s wrapping paper. After that, we occasionally ask each other what something might be. I’m not entirely sure why we bother any more, because the answer is usually, “Err… dunno. Can’t be important. Cut it off.”

The tutor often tells us that we work impressively fast. Maybe it’s because we sit there casually chopping things off for three hours.

After getting through the rabbit practical rather faster than a lot of people, we took the opportunity to practice suturing the skin closed again. The tutor had taken a few minutes to demonstrate, producing a needle about the size of my thumb and then saying, “So yeah, you obviously wouldn’t normally use this size, it’s just so you can see what I’m doing.”

After watching and learning, and feeling confident that I could repeat what she’d done, I opened the packet with my suture material in it.

There was nothing in the packet.

Oh no, wait. I got my forceps and pulled a microscopically thin strand of suture from it, and on the end was the finest, tiniest needle I’ve ever laid eyes on. I squinted at it, convinced that couldn’t be it.

“Is that the needle!” Claire squinted too.

My hands are generally very steady, I’m proud to say. But I was constantly knocking the minuscule needle and losing it in the vast forest of my rabbit’s coat. It got more and more frustrating, and I actually developed a nervous laugh in an effort not to lob the dead rabbit across the room.

“Haha, lost it again. Oh, and again, haha. Haha, oops. Where is it? Oh, haha, there it is! Hehe, this is a bit tricky. Haha.”

Ha. Ha. Oh my God.

Just as my heart rate was reaching 340bpm, a technician arrived with the same needle and material the tutor had used. Yes please.

Claire had a go with this new material, and then I had a turn. After that palaver, this was fantastic. The needle punched huge holes, but it shone like Excalibur as it came through the other side. No problem finding that. And the material stood up to the pressure I unleashed on it to make up for the four or five times the last one had snapped under my touch. I looked proudly at the single stitch I’d managed to squeeze into the time allowance for the session, before the whole rabbit went in the bin. *Sigh*.

But the highlight of the week, as it always is the few times it happens, was Clinical Skills. We were examining abdomen, limbs and lymph nodes, and my group had a gorgeous female German Shepherd. Not quite adult, not quite puppy, this beautiful long-haired dog was one of the most tolerant I’ve met. She allowed her owner to roll her about to show us various bits of her, and fell asleep as we flexed and extended every joint in her legs. Sometimes she wanted to know what was going on down that end, but soon went back to sleep. She put up fabulously with us prodding her belly and poking around behind her jaw. What a star.

Next week is the vet school’s Burns Night, where there’ll be haggis paraded in to the sound of bagpipes and other untold festivities, I’m sure. The title is dual-purpose, because although made famous by Steinbeck’s novel, Of Mice and Men is a line from a Robert Burns poem ‘To a Mouse’. How very appropriate, if I do say so myself!

Oh, and just to let you know, the snow really has arrived – particularly at Easter Bush – and it’s beautiful!

Unfortunately I took no photos of the snow, but here’s a picture of my pencil sharpener, that loudly objects when you turn the pencil. No, really!




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