Variation on a Theme

“Ah, I think that’s the dorsal extensor branch of the suspensory ligament.” I confidently declared, using my pencil to point at a pale, ill-defined structure on the disembodied cow limb. In order to confirm my excellent anatomical knowledge, I referred to the answer sheet on the desk.

“Number 14… what? Apparently its the ‘abaxial dorsal extensor branch of the suspensory ligament to join the tendon of the medial belly of the common digital extensor muscle on digit three’… obviously…”

I made a note of the catchy name, and we moved on to a different specimen. I poked around for a while.

“If I pull on this tendon… yes, let me write that down. The lateral… digital… extens-”

“Elise, look out!”

I looked up just in time to see the colossal slimy leg falling towards me like a great felled oak, and put my hands out to catch it. Death juice ran down my arms as I tried to prop its weight up long enough to clamp it back into place… for goodness’ sake. I shan’t be pulling on any more tendons today.

I looked across to the next specimen.

“Aha, a hindfoot!” I know things about ungulate hindfeet, I’ve got this.

“Elise, it says here that this is a forefoot.”

My patience suddenly evaporated, “This is getting ridiculous – why do I need to possess some magic intuition about whether this is a fore or a hindfoot? Forgive me, but I anticipate that most of the feet I’ll be treating will be ATTACHED TO A PATIENT.”

I then ranted for a while about how the lecturers label the same structures with almost unrecognisably different names on each specimen, and how instead of boosting my confidence, these practicals only seemed to demonstrate to me how little I actually know.

And breathe.

Having got my Withnail episode out of the way, I collected myself and we plodded on round the dissection room.

The practical wasn’t a total disaster, however. The whole group was seated around the room watching the screen for the half-time demonstration by the lecturer, who attempts to reanimate dead limbs through interpretive dance to demonstrate their action in the live animal.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a skinned and pickled cow leg slowly leaning from its precarious position propped up against a pole. Sitting obliviously in its path was one of my least favourite colleagues. The whole situation had a sweet inevitability about it.

A small part of me said I should really say something, but the bigger part was savouring the anticipation, and the leaning leg soon reached the point where I knew it would make no difference. As the lecturer continued to talk, all I was missing was a bag of popcorn as the leg balanced for a small moment, and then accelerated towards my colleague. It hit him with a resounding smack across the cheek, and the whole room turned to look as he grappled with the slippery specimen.

My mood was restored to a satisfied high as a lecturer rushed in to lift the leg off her student, and he hurried to wipe the jellified death juice off his face. Does that make me a bad person?

We’re only three weeks into the semester and, predictably, I feel like I’m at least six weeks behind with my lectures. We’ve been receiving lectures on the equine limbs, the bovine limbs, digestive systems, the oral cavity, dentition, nutrition, locomotion, rodents, rabbits, reptiles, ruminants…

I am way in over my head. But it’s okay, because so is everybody else.

The observant among you might have noticed that I pluralised digestive systems. Why, there’s only one digestive system, right? No, there is not. Nor is there one type of limb, or one type of dentition, nor one type of anything really. Not when you study veterinary medicine.

I’m so relieved to be back studying really ‘vetty’ things like anatomy and physiology, don’t get me wrong. But it’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve really come to appreciate what I bit off here, at least in terms of species variation.

I have enormous respect for my peers on the ‘real’ medicine and nursing degrees, they do things and see things you wouldn’t ever find me doing or seeing. But species variation is simultaneously the very thing that makes veterinary medicine so attractive to me, and also a complete and utter nightmare that the medics don’t have to deal with.

I could write a War and Peace-esque novel on the species variation I’ve encountered in the last three weeks alone. But I won’t, mostly because I’m aware not everyone finds it so riveting, but also because I have such limited time to blog due to the sheer volume of material I need to study!

But I am keen to give you a flavour, because it’s possibly the most notable aspect of my entire degree. One of our many topics for this semester is the digestive system, which we’re covering across the major species groups from the tips of the lips to the elimination location.

There are a few different digestive tracts covered in my course. We have monogastric carnivores, monogastric omnivores, foregut-fermenting ruminant herbivores, hindgut-fermenting monogastric herbivores, the weird world of bird digestion, and stuff still to come on reptiles and fish. From the gross anatomy down to the physiological  functions, each species is remarkably different. And knowledge of these differences is critical to the survival of the patient. If you treated them all the same way, at least a proportion of them would die.

Take, for example, the reflexes that stimulate salivation. In animals that eat meals, such as carnivores, salivary reflexes are based mostly on seeing, smelling, and feeling the food – we call this a psychic and cephalic reflex. Psychic reflexes are pretty much absent in those who graze all day. In monogastric hindgut fermenters like the horse, the secretion of stomach acid is continuous, which means they have to salivate constantly to prevent the acid burning ulcers into their stomach walls. But their stimulus is mastication (chewing their food), so if you stop a horse grazing for too long, he stops salivating and… gastric ulcers. It’s different again for foregut-fermenters. In ruminants, the reflex for salivation is gastric, so when their rumens are full, they salivate. But a rumen always has to be full, even under anaesthetic, which means they salivate at a rate of 150 litres per day even on the operating table. So if you don’t provide adequate drainage, they’ll aspirate their saliva and get pneumonia. Additionally, since a cow produces three times her own blood volume in saliva per day, if a potato gets stuck in her throat, she can literally dehydrate to death by slobbering.

I assume you catch my drift. The differences between species range from slight to overt, depending on which part of the body you examine, and sometimes the slight differences can be the hardest to remember. A lot of the time, this can be helped by knowing the ‘theme’, or I suppose you could say the ‘blueprint’, of a particular structure or system. After that, you learn how each species differs from that blueprint, and call that it’s ‘variation on a theme’. But there’s only one way of hoping to cement that variation in your mind. After lectures on particular body structures, there usually follows practical sessions a few days later. In the last few weeks, these have predominantly been prosected specimen practicals, where the specimens have already been dissected, and we complete worksheets about each one. When it comes to anatomy, seeing and handling things is by far the best way to understand them.

Despite my intermittent frustration, I love anatomy practicals, and have since learnt to swiftly distinguish hindfeet from forefeet, although I maintain that it’s pretty bloody useless. What I’ve found particularly exciting is the number of species I’ve been able to see dissected. Last year, it was dogs with the odd cat. This year, I’ve already seen the heads and legs of cats, dogs, pigs, cattle, sheep, horses, and a giraffe. Whilst it can be very difficult, it’s a wonderful challenge to use the knowledge I already have to try and identify structures in completely new species.

Every time I come across a new species in the dissection room, it’s like someone has lifted the veil on that particular animal. In successive classes, the veils of uncertainty have been replaced by clarity, and I can never see each animal the same way again. The more I see, the more I want to see. I don’t even care if I’ll never treat an okapi, or a giraffe, but I still want to see inside.

Just the other day, I had a practical slot on my timetable labelled ‘Dentition’. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, because I found dentition quite difficult, and so far not that stimulating.

But I changed my mind in a heartbeat the moment I walked in. Every desk was laid out with skulls from a myriad of exotic species. I didn’t know where to go first. I dotted about the room proudly identifying the filter plate of a baleen whale, the jaws of a shark, the tusk of a walrus, and the skulls of a dolphin, crocodile, and mink.

But there was one skull you just couldn’t miss. Looming in the corner was the entire skull and mandible of an elephant. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to share images from the dissection room, but I’m sure your imagination is adept enough. As soon as there was space at the station, I went for a nosey. The scale of it was phenomenal. As I was trying to estimate just how heavy it would be, my lecturer told me to try lifting the mandible off the table. It felt like such an honour just to see such a rare and beautiful thing, and she was telling me I could touch it!? Terrified that I would damage it somehow, I wrapped my arms around the colossal lower jaw and lifted. The bones cleared the tabletop by centimeters, and I had to lower it quickly because of its sheer weight. I looked with disbelief at the skull and jaw, and then at my lecturer, “I can’t imagine what kind of neck you’d need to hold that up.”

My statement triggered a fabulously geeky discussion with my lecturer about the elephant head and neck, which only increased my fascination with it. Soon I found myself standing, staring at the skull. My mind’s eye was filling in the muscle over the bone, and the skin over that, until the giant face of an African elephant was staring right back at me, with that unfathomable gentleness and intelligence that makes them so captivating.

Minutes later, I was opening the jaws of a large crocodile, and running my fingers along the points of his teeth. Not many people get to do that, and keep both of their hands. As I closed the jaws and watched the teeth interlock along the entire length of his head, I was struck by a sudden appreciation for the immense power that this prehistoric predator used to quite literally tear his victims apart.

Species variation may very well make my life difficult, but it’s a privilege that the medics will never have. The privilege to understand so intimately the vast array of life we share this world with, and to know the secrets of power, speed, endurance and resilience far beyond the capabilities of man.

Speaking of man’s capabilities, I decided this year was the year to test mine in a completely new skill. The University of Edinburgh has 260 societies. I am a member of the Veterinary Zoological Society and the Veterinary Animal Behaviour Society. I’m not really branching out, am I?

I wanted something completely new, but something that would take up only a small amount of my limited time, and that would accept completely beginners. It was a difficult task finding something that fit the above, but I chose… Swing Dance.

Yep, swing dance, as in the 20’s/30’s African American swing dance. It’s new, it’s feel-good and it’s 45 minutes per week. Having never danced a step of swing in my life, and turning up all alone at the venue, I was more than a little apprehensive. Finally another person appeared, and I asked him if this was the beginner’s Lindy class.

“Um, no, that was an hour ago at Teviot. This is the beginner’s Balboa.”

Oh no. I didn’t know much about swing, but I’d read that you needed at least a semester’s worth of Lindy experience before attempting the more difficult Balboa. That night was the last chance to join Lindy, because after that the class is too far ahead for complete beginners. Dammit.

“I’m in the wrong place, I’m a complete beginner. Sorry.”

“Come in and try anyway, you might be good at it.”

I sincerely doubted that, but I’d walked all the way there in the dark, might as well have a go. It turned out that there was another girl who had misinterpreted the timetable the same way as me.

Whatever the circumstances, half an hour later I was squashed up against my partner doing an awkward kind of shuffle around the dance floor. The class spent that entire evening shuffling, swapping partners and then shuffling some more. It was a clumsy and difficult movement, but at least everyone else seemed to be finding it just as hard as me.

My first partner had enormous feet, and he wore even more enormous shoes. On top of this, he appeared to have no sense of rhythm at all. What he considered a rhythmic shuffle actually came out as a painful looking limp. I almost felt guilty handing him over to the next girl – she had no idea how terrible it was about to be.

I came home from that class with a buzz from the socialisation, but I didn’t actually feel as if I’d danced. And so that night, with a bit of persuasion, I managed to get into the Lindy class practice on the Saturday. If I was successful at the practice, I could join the Monday lessons.

And I am so glad I did.

The Saturday practice, and the following Monday lesson, were an absolute blast. The Lindy Hop is a classic, lively, semi-improvised swing. It was everything I expected it to be. The learning curve is steep, and there’s a lot to remember. But the time flew by, and I left both times completely exhilarated by the upbeat music, cheerful atmosphere and complete change of scenery. I’m really looking forward to being proficient in the basic moves, so that I can just pick up a partner and dance without the stress of trying to place my feet right. Until that day, I’ll just have to keep apologising to people’s toes!

I didn’t have anything last year that offered me respite or escapism, and that left me pretty sad. This year, I’m arming myself against the sadness with a real old-time bit of fun.

I’m afraid I can’t guarantee when I’ll next write, I can barely find time to breathe! But write I will, because there’s always something worth telling you about at the Dick Vet. I’ll leave you with my approach to procrastination – anatomy and art. Please do keep checking in, or if you’d rather get an email notification when I next post, please click “follow” at the bottom of your screen. You won’t get any spam, just an email to save you having to check the site for new posts. Whatever you prefer, thanks for reading TheDogsbody!

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