Something to Ruminate Over

It sat in front of me like a giant empty potato sack – completely shapeless, and a uniform shade of boggy brown. My notes said that there would be four chambers: rumen, reticulum, omasum, abomasum. But when I looked between my brightly-coloured diagram and the deflated brown specimen, there was no resemblance whatsoever. And so with the familiar snap of rubber gloves, I began rummaging inside the great sack.

Somebody had made a large incision across the top, which meant I could hold up the edges and peer into the darkness. I really don’t have adjectives to describe the smell, but the internal surface was textured like AstroTurf, and divided into chambers by thick muscular bands. This must be the rumen.

The rumen was slimy and dark and difficult to navigate. I actually paused at one point to appreciate how every decision in my life had led to me groping around inside the preserved stomach of a dead cow. How utterly poetic. Once I reach one end of the enormous cavity, I crossed over a band and into another chamber, where the AstroTurf melted into an elaborate honeycomb pattern. I’d arrived at the reticulum.

Somewhere around here, I knew I’d find an opening into the next chamber. I also knew that this chamber was relatively small, but feeling across the honeycombed walls just seemed to turn into an endless slimy treadmill going around and around and around. Just as I was tempted to stick my head all the way in to see what I was doing, my fingers disappeared into a hole. Aha, the reticulo-omasal orifice. But my fingers wouldn’t advance any further, because the omasum was packed with infoldings of the mucosa into great sheets just like the pages of a book.

Having scored three out of four on my forestomach checklist, my hands reatreated back through the reticulum and rumen and into the outside world to join the rest of me. Now that I’d found those chambers, I knew which way round the stomach was on the table. I was seeing its left side, which meant that the final chamber – the abomasum – was sitting at the bottom of the massive heap. I needed to turn it over.

It was a truly gigantic organ, and it sat sullenly in a puddle of formalin a few inches deep. I considered it for a few seconds, and tried to come up with a plan for flipping it over by myself. Just to the right of my table, a vet was teaching a small group of students.  I debated asking for help, but then stoically decided I could manage this alone. Grabbing two handfuls of organ from the bottom, I counted to three and yanked upwards. The whole thing rotated magnificently, and I held its weight for a second to assess the new angle I would see it from. Satisfied with the view, I let go of it.

I experienced a moment of satisfaction as it flopped back down like a sodden parachute, but it immediately turned to regret as its impact generated a small tsunami in the formalin, which rolled aggressively towards the teaching group.

“No no no! Oh sh-”

The tsunami broke over the lip of the tray and arced through the air, landing with a splatter on the floor just inches from the Italian leather shoes of a nearby student.

I just stood with my mouth open. Nobody turned around – nobody even noticed. The vet continued chatting about the ruminant stomach, blissfully unaware of the narrowly-avoided death juice disaster. Flamin’ Nora, what a relief. I glanced around myself to double-check that I’d got away with it. Coast was clear.

“We saw that!”

My head snapped round to find the speaker, who turned out to be in a group of three giggling girls that had witnessed my epic blunder. I tried to make light of it by saying “Phew!” and wiping my hand across my head to acknowledge how close I’d come to causing chaos. But in the process I smeared death juice across my face, and then had to pretend it wasn’t trickling into my eyes in order to avoid further humiliation in front of my little audience. Bloody fantastic.

The rest of that week was a tough trudge through an endless series of lectures on nutrition, pancreatic function, intestinal absorption, and the human-animal bond . In any vocational degree, the real driving force for learning and understanding material is simply: how will this be relevant when I graduate?

For vet and other medical students, this means that we’re constantly trying to connect lecture material with clinical practice. Sometimes the connection is brilliantly apparent; know the distribution of sensory nerves in the equine foot so you know where to put local anaesthetic. Sometimes it has to be pointed out; be very careful when deciding to surgically remove gallstones, because the lack of bile flow leads to a lack of vitamin K absorption, which leads to poor clotting and potentially your patient bleeding out during the op (wouldn’t have made that connection by myself!).

And then there are lectures where, no matter how hard I try, I just cannot see how any of the content is relevant. In other words, why am I sitting through four lectures on grass? Will I remember these horticultural details in three years’ time? No! Would remembering these details make me a better practitioner even if I could? No!

These kinds of lectures are exceedingly difficult to take seriously, and even harder to memorise. And yet somehow they’ve managed to cling on to their spot in the curriculum over the decades. Maybe there is some merit to knowing the different strategies for grassland management, but every time I sit down to learn lecture content, I have to strategise. My memory capacity is not unlimited, or at least there’s a limit to how fast a person can store information that’s presented in a constant stream. Every measure of storage is at a premium, as there’s only so much detail I can hold onto for the exams. This means that as students we have to be selective about what material gets a seat in the mind palace. There’s a number of factors at play, at least when it comes to the way I like to triage information. And each student’s system will have different priorities, because people place different weights on the importance of passing the next exam vs. being a good practitioner in the long term. But this is my system:

  • How relevant is this to clinical practice?
  • How good am I at remembering this type of information?
  • How long will it take me to learn?
  • How long have I got?
  • How likely is it to come up in an exam?
  • How many marks is it likely to be worth in an exam?
  • Could I work this out in an exam without having memorised it?
  • Could I just bullshit this in an exam?

I don’t sit at my desk doing a checklist, these are evaluations that I make in a matter of seconds as I work through my notes. All information can be put on a scale according to these questions. If the answers are clearly: not very relevant, not very good, a long time, not enough time, not very likely, not very much, yes, and yes… well I can tell my lecturer where to stuff it. If the answers are clearly: very relevant, very good, a little time, enough time, very likely, very many, no, and definitely not… you can bet it’s blu-tacked to my bedroom wall. But most things fall somewhere between, and revision becomes a series of calculated gambles about what and what not to learn.

The following week continued to race through digestive histology, pig management, liver function, locomotor diagnostics, and gastrointestinal smooth muscle control. It was one of those weeks where ordinarily I’d be relieved to see Friday. But not that week. Because that Friday had “STEEPLECHASE” written across the timetable. The word steeplechase is used as a sort of pun to describe what is essentially a spot exam. You might recall that I described a spot exam to you in Dog Tired, and in essence you move from table to table, each with a dissected animal, and you write answers to questions about them.

It’s stressful, it’s fast-paced, and it’s acutely detailed. I spent every evening that week trying to secure knowledge about horse and ox limbs into my memory. They’re incredible structures, and likewise incredibly complex. But I was chuffed to find out that I did in fact know stuff about hoofed animals, because I finished with 53/55… get in.

Did I then treat myself to a lazy Saturday? No I did not.

You might remember that the professional body RCVS requires that all vet students go to various places and complete placements there. These are Extra Mural Studies (EMS) placements, and that’s essentially what I spent my Summer doing. One of those requirements is a day at a livestock market, which Rowena and I both still needed to complete.

The Stirling bull sales are a common haunt for Dick Vet students, and so we decided to go to one of the auction centre’s Saturday cattle sales. What we didn’t realise was just how far away this place was. I had some inkling that we might need a quick train ride, but when I actually Googled this, it turned out that the train was now terminating at an earlier city. And so at half seven on the Saturday morning, we dragged our asses out of bed and to the bus stop. From here we caught a bus to the Edinburgh bus station, then a one and a half hour coach to Stirling, followed by a taxi out to the agricultural centre.

The place was bustling with loud farmers in wellies and flat caps. My inner Yorkshire came out, because I knew that if you talked loudly enough and walked with enough purpose, no one would notice you’re not one of them.

Having changed into wellies, we set off to find the lairage, where the cattle are held before auction. After possibly blowing our cover by being overly thorough disinfecting our boots, we entered the lairage barn. It was enormous – rows upon rows of metal pens holding groups of cattle. People were wandering up and down deciding which stock they’d be bidding on. We tried to blend in, but I was acutely aware that between the squinting, note-taking and photograph-snapping, we might look like animal rights freaks building a case.

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Having gathered the information we needed, we headed back to the building to find the auction rooms. They were pretty packed out, and we found seats up towards the back where we’d get a decent view.

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If you’ve never been to a livestock auction, I can tell you they’re pretty intense events. It’s like stepping back in time – in fact, pedigree auctions are often bid for in guineas. Cattle are moved like clockwork from their lairage pens and driven into the auction ring, where a stockman keeps them on the move for everyone to see.

The auctioneer keeps up a rapid, rhythmic chant that contains the odd discernable number followed by lots of noises. After a while, you tune in to that auctioneer’s style and it’s easier to keep up with the bidding. Spotting the actual bidders proved to be almost impossible, though. They were using the smallest of cues to place their bids, from the slightest tip of the head to the raising of a finger.

I sat rigidly still, listening to the galloping chant of the auctioneer, terrified that I might go to scratch my nose and inadvertently purchase three heifers with calves at foot.

I took down the details of each animal and the price it fetched, hoping to get a feel for which animals were more valuable. I kept going back over the numbers, searching for correlations between the sex of the calf, the age of the heifer, the calf’s sire, the calf’s age, anything that might add or detract value. But I got increasingly frustrated when even after sixty lots, I couldn’t see the pattern.

I tried looking subjectively at each animal, evaluating its size, conformation and apparent quality, before predicting the price. I could discern the very expensive and very low-value animals, but the majority continued to surprise me. Ultimately, I had to accept that I just didn’t know what the bidders were looking for. And neither did Rowena.

I could only conclude that each bidder had their own idea of what constitutes an ideal stock animal, which depends on what they already keep, what traits they breed for, and personal aesthetic preferences.

By mid-afternoon, we’d seen sales from all of the day’s categories and decided we’d got what we needed. After the return taxi, return coach, and final bus home, the day was very much coming to an end.

That brings us to October 22nd… it’s be a while since I found the time to write! Stay tuned for the next few days, over which I hope to release a couple more posts to get you all up to date. As ever, thanks for reading TheDogsbody!

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