Like A Rat Out Of Hell

Monday morning. And another MCQ.

I sat with my exam paper, trying to visualise the number of lobes in the equine liver. This was something I had chosen not to learn, and so at least three of the five possible responses looked correct to me. I then spent some time debating about muscarinic and nicotinic receptors, and then double-checked my other 18 responses. Everything looked reasonable.

Eventually time was up, and I turned my paper in. These assessments are immediately followed by a feedback session that provides the answers, so that you know where abouts your mark will fall. Here we go.

I’d quite like it if they just rattled through the questions and told us the correct responses. Instead, there’s a lengthy discussion about why A, C, D and E are wrong, and why B is right. Sorry, Professor, but I’d rather you didn’t do that – it tends to get mixed with the correct stuff you’ve told me, and when it comes to exam time, I can’t remember which was which.

Apparently that day there was a bunch of correct stuff in my head, because I finished with 18/20. Not bad at all. I had but a moment to come down from the exam stress before we blasted through 4 consecutive lectures on the heart and metabolism, another 4 metabolism and nutrition lectures on Wednesday, followed by more metabolism lectures on Thursday. I kid you not, I’m getting vertigo from the speed of this degree.

Cardiovascular is both a brilliant subject and a nightmare at the same time. The first couple of lectures were exceptionally tough to follow. Our lecturer had drawn a “schematic” diagram on the board, which is another way of saying that the drawing is appalling and in no way resembles the organ in question. She then began labelling the amorphous blob until it had so many lines erupting from it that it resembled a porcupine more than it did a heart. I scribbled frantically on my own diagram.

“The coronary circulation originates as the left and right coronary arteries arising from behind the aortic cusps. The left artery accesses the coronary groove from between the pulmonary trunk and the left auricle, and sends off the left interventricular, or paraconal, artery ventrally towards the apex. The circumflex branch travels caudally and then, in carnivores, gives off the right interventricular, or subsinuosal, branch towards the apex. But in horses, this region is perfused by the right coronary artery, which in the carnivore usually terminates at the level of the coronary sinus still within the coronary groove. Does that make sense?”

She scanned the room, where 115 blank faces nodded vaguely, “Good. Let’s look at the venous drainage.” The presentation slide flicked onwards.

By the time we were halfway through the lecture, my hand was cramping and my brain was aching, and so I just sat back in my seat and let the stream of words fly over the top of my head. I’ll try to understand it when I write it up later.

“You’ll understand it once you’ve seen it” is a phrase that echoes around the vet school like a sacred mantra. It’s how students attempt to reassure themselves when they leave a lecture with absolutely no idea what it was about… which is most days. It offers some courage that it will all make sense once you’ve spent three hours cutting it into pieces with a scalpel. Often this is true, and dissections really do help it cement. Other times, your last hope of ever understanding an organ is dashed when you’ve seen it and left more confused than when you walked in. It’s a gamble.

The heart was a bit like that for me. If you Google heart anatomy, you’ll get a lovely array of cross-sections that show all the chambers and valves in a beautiful arrangement, with bright blue and red vessels advertising what type of blood they carry.

The real thing is much, much different. After two hours picking up hearts and turning them this way and that, I was still no closer to being able to orientate myself with one. When I look at the arrangement of the chambers, and the arrangement of the vessels, it looks to me like someone has taken the top and twisted it clockwise. Everything is pointing the wrong way.

I stood prizing apart the ventricular walls of a heart as big as my head, when my lecturer appeared suddenly in front of me, “Do you know what animal this came from?”

She was beaming as she waited for me to guess. I scrambled around inside my head, “Uh, it’s very big. And, um, stout… so maybe a rhinoceros?”

I cringed so hard – a rhinoceros? What were you thinking!?

“It’s from a hippopotamus!” she exclaimed, and I was caught between surprise that my answer wasn’t far off, and confusion about how they’d managed to acquire something so absurd. Whatever the animal, something didn’t make sense to me, “The right ventricle seems to occupy the cranial part of the heart, and the left ventricle the caudal part. Why are they called ‘left’ and ‘right’?”

“Oh, that’s because they’re on the left and right in a human.” she said matter-of-factly. Oh, of course. Because the anatomical terms for all creatures that walk the Earth come from a single arrogant species that walks bizarrely on two legs. Silly me.

They had all sorts of hearts in there. There were long, slender giraffe hearts, athletic horse hearts, and tiny little cat hearts. But at the back of the room sat a whale heart. Or rather, the whale heart sat in pieces at the back of the room, each piece still attached to the ceiling winch that brought it in.

It was absolutely colossal. I felt like I’d been shrunk down and placed next to a human heart. All the structures were there, but magnified a thousand times. I struggled to imagine the pressure that could be generated by the impossibly thick walls, and the volume of blood it could move in each stroke. On another table sat the corresponding aortic arch, which would easily have made a roomy sleeping bag for someone my size. Where on Earth did they get this from?

I spent the next hour dashing from table to table with Claire quietly in tow, taking hundreds of pictures of various different hearts and saying “wow” over and over. I must be an exhausting lab partner.

After two hours running around looking at hearts, I sat impatiently through two hours of metabolism lectures, excited for my afternoon practical. My timetable simply said ‘Exotics’. And it unhelpfully said “Block F”. There are no maps of the veterinary campus, apparently it’s uncharted territory, which makes providing the block name completely useless. I vaguely recalled passing an exotics unit on the way to basic obstetrics last year, and so I set off in that direction.

I, and the rest of my teaching group, found the place after a bit of aimless wandering. We were greeted by a vet nurse who essentially told us that if we were afraid of any exotic species, we needed to get over it. I saw a few faces cringing, but mine didn’t – I couldn’t wait.

We were divided into even smaller groups, and mine was directed to the reptile unit. Seated around an examination table, we watched as the nurse brought out one reptile after another. We met a bearded dragon, snakes, a tortoise, a pigeon, and a gecko. We discussed the husbandry and care of each species as she held them up for us to see.

Being the closest to the nurse, I was always the first to be handed the animal after the discussion. Reptiles are fascinating animals in so many different ways, and surprisingly tolerant of being handled. Zazi the bearded dragon was stretched down the length of my forearm, watching me carefully with one eye and the rest of the group with her other. Her neck was slightly puffed up with anxiety as she was passed around the room like a joint at a flat party.

Next, the nurse emerged with her hands cupping a tiny, bright yellow creature. His enormous round eyes peeked over the top of her fingers, “This is Leonard, he’s our leopard gecko.” He was adorable. Once we’d finished talking about a gecko’s needs, the nurse handed Leonard over to me. Just as his tiny frog-like feet walked onto my hand, she said, “Don’t stress him out, because his tail will detach and it’ll take a very long time to grow back.”

What!? I wasn’t stressed about having the gecko until she went and said this, and then I was terrified to turn him over to look at his genitals. He watched me intensely with his large eyes, his little pink tongue popping out every now and again. He suddenly looked very fragile, “Alright mate, I’m just going to have a quick look.”

Holding my breath, I turned the little guy over so that his belly was in the air. I got a very brief look before his legs started pedaling frantically and I turned him back before anybody lost an appendage. Once Leonard and the tortoise had made the rounds, the nurse returned with a snake wound around her hands. We had three boys in our teaching group, and all of them tensed in their seats the minute the first snake appeared. Get a grip, lads.

Monty the python was a busy, curious chap. While we discussed his husbandry, he spent the time reaching out to get a better look at the group, tasting the air every few seconds. He finally arrived in my hands, and he was absolutely stunning, if not difficult to keep a grip on. The nurse continued to engage the group in conversation, while I struck an amazing variety of poses in my attempts to hold onto the snake. The rule is that you should have control of at least two thirds of the length of the snake at all times – easier said than done.

He made it round the group and back into the nurse’s hands, “So, how do we sex snakes?”

Oh, I remember something about this, “With a cloacal probe. The probe advances much further in the males than the females.”

“That’s right, do you know where the cloaca is?” she stretched Monty out so that I could point to the cloaca. With the snake’s belly wriggling in front of my face, I tried to identify the hole. But all I could see was belly scales.

“Well, um. Gosh, I know it’s at the base of the tail…” I kind of ran out of words, and the whole group was watching me, “But, you know… the whole snake looks like a tail to me.”

There was a cringy silence, and then suddenly everyone was laughing. Oh well, at least I have entertainment value if nothing else. The last animal of the session was Copper the pigeon, who had spent the whole time sitting in his cage in the corner of the room, being eyed up by the parade of reptilian predators. Apparently, they used to use parrots in the teaching sessions and handling exams, but the funny buggers just took the piss and caused mayhem. Our job was to pick Copper up from the examination table in a one-handed hold. While I’d anticipated a lot of flapping, Copper was wonderfully cooperative. His head bobbed about as he stood patiently on the table, waiting for me to find the correct hand position, and smartly preened his feathers back into place once I put him back down. What a sweetie.

For the latter half of the afternoon, we swapped out with the other group to do small mammal handling. We rattled through a discussion about rabbit husbandry, and were let loose to go and catch a rabbit from the indoor playpens they were in. I was, in hindsight, too polite. This left me to catch the last rabbit which, inevitably, was the one nobody else had been able to catch. I crashed around in the playpen for a while, and finally got the wriggler pinned down by his shoulders. I scooped him up into the ‘bagpipe’ hold that we’d been taught, and carried him over to the exam tables where the rest of my colleagues stood waiting with their rabbits. But my rabbit wasn’t going to come quietly, and he kicked out with his back legs the whole way there. I made it, and plonked him onto the table in a cloud of fur, trying to pull my sleeves down over the scratches on my arms.

Then a shutter went off to my left. WHO IN HOLY HELL IS TAKING PICTURES OF ME?!

“Hi everyone, this is Darren, he’s a photographer. He’s come to take pictures for the prospectus, if that’s okay?”

The cloud of rabbit fur was still settling around me, and I blew it off the end of my nose with a scowl. No, that is not okay actually.

“So, sexing rabbits then.” the vet began, “Anogenital distance is what we’re looking at. It’s going to be larger for the males, and the genital orifice should be round. It’ll be Y-shaped in the girls. If your rabbit will tolerate it, you can extrude the penis if you like.”

I glanced at my rabbit, who was currently twisting his head around in an attempt to sink his teeth into my fingers. Not sure we’ll be doing any extruding today.

Eventually I got sick of my rabbit’s attitude, and I put him back in the playpen. When I turned back to the table, my colleague thoughtfully offered her rabbit’s arse up to my face, presumably so that I could inspect it. I thanked her, and began parting the fur under its tail. Having located the anus I felt around for testicles, of which there were none, before venturing further forward. I came across a circle in the dense fur.

“Have you found it?” my colleague’s voice appeared from behind the furry bum.

“I think so. Give me a second, I’m just going to see if it will… aha! Yes, definitely male.”

Well that was fun. After a similar, but less stressful, session with the guinea pigs, the vet moved onto the topic of rats. “We’ve got white rats here from the lab at Roslin. There’s a cage of boys and a cage of girls, but I’m not going to tell you which is which, because you need to learn to do that yourself.”

A curious individual had come out of its nest to have a look at the students. It began climbing the front wall to get a better view of us all. I looked at the tiny front feet gripping the wire, the bright white fur of the belly, and the – oh. Between the back legs hung a pair of testicles so large that they looked like some sort of horrendous tumour. I looked at the vet for any sign of irony on her face, but she was dead serious. She wanted us to learn how to sex the rats.

The rats were removed from the cages one by one, and handed out to the students inside cardboard tubes. I struggled to coax my female out of her tube. Eventually, I had to turn the tube vertically and let her slide out onto my hand.

The minute she landed in my palm, she was off. She scampered off my hand and made a run for the edge of the table, but I caught her just in time. For the next twenty seconds, I put one hand frantically in front of the other to form a treadmill for the running rat. Time and again I tried to apply the restraint methods that we’d been taught, but she kept squirming out of my grip. I was terrified of crushing the little creature’s bones, but she was hellish to keep a hold of. Her sharp little claws scratched all over my hands.

My colleague stood next to me cradling her quiet male, “Are you having fun there, Elise?”

“Yep, barrel of laughs, this one.” I let out a half-crazed laugh.

I managed to get her back into the tube, and stood there with my hands clamped firmly over each end. Now that I could breath for a second, I saw every single female rat giving their students the run-around. Not just me, then.

“Would you like to swap?” the smug colleague asked.

“Absolutely.” We exchanged rats, and I cuddled the male while I waited in anticipation for her to open the tube.

She took one hand off the end of the tube and peered inside, “Hi sweetheart, are you coming out? Come on, it’s okay you – oh no!”

The rat had bolted out of the tube and landed on the table. It was an exact replica of the scene she’d made with me. Except my colleague didn’t catch her, and she scarpered toward’s the table’s edge. She was now way out of arm’s reach and heading towards the lads and their rats, when one of them turned around. Just as she reached the edge, a male student spotted her and shoved his crotch up against the table, which stopped the rat long enough for him to grab her around the middle.

What a day. I dread to think how dull it must be to study an ordinary degree… I left that Friday afternoon practical with bleeding hands and a massive grin on my face – a state that epitomises life as an Edinburgh vet student. Stay tuned for a post about my adventure to Newcastle – the ultimate trip for any animal enthusiast!


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