On Your Marks

So this is it, the final furlong – two more weeks and our first year at the Dick Vet will be over.

I’ll save my speech for the finale, there’s a significant chance that the next fortnight will see more fatalities than the Grand National. I may not be Rule the World, but I’m doing everything possible to stay with the field!

And, in contrast to the metaphor, that involves lots… and lots… of this:

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It would be nice to think that this is an expression of deep intellectual thought, but I think it’s best to be honest: this is the face of someone who has no idea how to fit 800 hours of material into the next 7 days.

I recall being pretty overwhelmed by the volume of information given to us for the first exam series. It was one of those moments where you find some comfort in knowing that this is the limit, they literally can’t push you any harder, so if you can do this – why, you can do anything! And then you move forward, and find that this wasn’t the limit, that there is in fact a whole new level of complexity, detail and pressure waiting for you in the next series. Oh, man.

It’s given me quite a struggle, because unlike many students I know who are studying degrees that have no specific career application, veterinary medicine is vocational. Like nursing, law, medicine and the like, these degrees prepare you for your day-to-day life as a nurse, lawyer or doctor. The lecturers say things like, “It’s really important that you understand this mechanism. If you get this wrong, you will kill your patients. I can’t stress that enough – you must understand this.”

Things that I learn now form the foundation of understanding for clinical practice. I need to know that Hypoderma larvae spend part of their development in the epidural space of the bovine spinal canal. I need to know this because administering systemic insecticides at this point causes an inflammatory reaction to the dead larvae, which can paralyse the animal. I need to know that Demodicosis (demodectic mange) is actually caused by a deficiency in the host’s immune system, not the mite per se, and so administering corticosteroids will only make things worse, by depressing what’s left of the animal’s defenses. I need to know the mechanism of septic shock, so that I can stop it before it progresses to multiple organ failure.

I know that I have a responsibility to understand these things properly, so that I can work these problems through from their first principles in the future. And that requires time. Time that we just don’t have.

I don’t have enough time to put these things in the long-term memory bank, I barely have time to cram them into the short-term. This is all great for jumping through the hoops of examinations, but there are some subjects that we all know will be pivotal to everyday life in practice, that we’re just rote learning to progress to the next year of study. And I think that’s a shame. I want to understand these topics because they’re fascinating and immeasurably important. But our last lecture was yesterday – there’s no time.

And part of me thinks it doesn’t need to be this way. Why, for example, do I need to be able to process genetics data to pinpoint the genome segments that make a new virus strain so virulent? Why do I need to know the acronyms for the receptors that cause monocytes to adhere to vascular endothelium and migrate into damaged tissues? What is the point of being able to list the toxins produced by Streptococcus equi?

When will that ever be useful to me – if I could even remember it beyond a couple of weeks post-exam?

I’m totally up for being lectured at this level of detail, the challenge is brilliant and it adds colour and moments of amazement to otherwise tedious material. But instead of examining students on the minute, irrelevant and impractical details at the cost of solid conceptual understanding, why not test those things that are clinically applicable?

But I want to progress to second year, so I’ll do as I’m asked.

The content of these upcoming exams has been my full-time occupation for the last six weeks, which I’m afraid to say means it’s been lacking in the hands-on excitement that I know makes a good read.

Parasitology in particular has been quite the experience, however. In a very frustrated speech about the fundamental importance of parasites in veterinary medicine, our lecturer bemoaned the fact that his course (which ideally should be taught over 3-4 months) had been relegated to an excruciatingly tight 2 weeks. This is a predominantly online course, the first of its kind that we’ve come across. For hours on end I sat at my desk listening to his increasingly annoying voice read slides to me word-for-word, while his wife made dinner in the background of the recording.

Credit to him, he tried his best to make it relevant with cases notes and images from his time in Kerala and the U.S.treating animals for parasites. And some of these parasites are like creatures from your nightmares.

There have been times where I’ve just thought, “No. That’s it. There’s no way I’m going outdoors again, not now that I know what’s out there.”

There are parasites with lifecyles that make my eyes water. Flies that squirt larvae into sheep’s noses… larvae that crawl up into the sinuses and eat from the inside of the animal’s head. Mites that induce massive inflammation and oozing of the skin in order to eat the proteins that exude out. Nematode worms that crawl to the anus (of people too!) to deposit their eggs before crawling back into the rectum. Christ.

The list is literally endless. Real-life horror stories playing out in virtually every animal you meet. Just cast a thought back to this post when you’re next out walking in the countryside. Watching the lovely little lambs with their MASSIVE WORM BURDENS.

As if the images and lectures weren’t enough, I literally got to meet these creatures in the flesh. I stood with my peers around an enormous cow’s liver recently acquired by the doctor from the local abattoir. The stench was pretty formidable. Taking his knife, he swept it across the surface and the organ fell open like a book. Immediately, small white grubs began popping out of their fleshy burrows and wriggling onto the metal tray.

“Aha! Look at that! Look at them all, this is a really good one!”

The standard disturbingly-excited response came from our lecturer. Taking a small handful of the grubs, he turned to face me. Oh no, please don’t. It’s gross, just let me look from a distance, doc.

“You look like you’d like to get your hands dirty!”

He didn’t even wait for me to concur with his statement before depositing a number of them into my hand, “Tell me. What are those?”

Liver flukes. Fasciola hepatica. That’s what they were, I knew this.

But with the whole group and the doc watching me examine the squidgy grubs, I blanked and said, “I assume they’re some sort of stage 3 larvae.”

The ridiculous grin slid off his face. “No. They’re not larvae.” he all but rolled his eyes and turned around to continue lecturing, leaving me stood for the next 25 minutes with a handful of trematodes.

We spent lots of time in that lab, examining mites, ticks, lice, flies, worms and everything in between. We looked at their feet, their mouthparts, their genitalia and anything else that would give us a clue to their lifecycles and feeding behaviours. Bless them, they’re all ugly as sin.

Right now, however, students are waltzing past my window with their suitcases – they’re going home for the Summer. Some finished weeks ago, and everybody else will be done by the end of this week – which means that the halls will be silent during our exam week, and we won’t have to compete for food in the canteen. Bliss!

I hear that the weather has been excellent at home. Suffice to say Scotland has had its Summer, 4 days of wonderful sunshine. Now, we play this exciting meteorological roulette where one minute it’s to the left, and the next… it’s to the right:

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It keeps you guessing! Should I wear 4 layers – or 6?

On a particularly stressful Thursday evening, the weather looked like this:

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And so Rowena and I took a walk in Holyrood park. There’s a ridge visible immediately above the middle windows. We made it to there, and plonked down on the edge of a small cliff. Even from that point, you could see the entire city laid out under the setting sun, with Edinburgh Castle sitting proudly over it, all the way to the firth. I regretted not doing this more often. Other students had made the same venture and sat dotted around the landscape, beers in hand.

Speaking of, did anyone bring a bottle opener?

Dammit. I looked across the city to where I could see my bedroom window – it’s in there. And I’m here, on a rock.

Over the course of the year, we’d become fairly accustomed to just knocking the caps off on the edge of a table, and so we set about clambering around Arthur’s Seat looking for a rock with a suitable edge. But of course, as any Geography student would have known, the edges were rounded off by the incessant rain and wind. And so we sat, laughing but cider-less, on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat.

We were about to head back to the halls when we did find a suitable edge – hey presto! What I didn’t know is that I’d weakened the bottle by trying to open it on the mountain, and rather than the cap coming off the bottle, a bit of bottle came off with the cap. Ouch… lesson learned.

Finally settling on the edge of our private little cliff, we chatted about nothing and everything. We had moments of reflective silence, and fits of hysterical laughter that nearly sent us rolling off the edge, and it was wonderful. Between us we were knackered, bleeding and freezing cold, but that’s what memories are made of, right?

It wasn’t the fading light or the icy wind that sent us home in the end – I just really, really needed to pee.

That moment of pleasure is long gone now – it’s revision week, so I probably won’t surface until the end of exams. No doubt they’ll be plenty eventful enough to write about, so I’ll see you there! For now, I’ll leave you with the prototype I’ve developed for a piece of kit one could use to sleep through lectures without being noticed. Not that I’d dreaof sleeping through a lecture…!

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Yes, those are my actual eyes… they’re just not the ones on my actual face

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