Where There’s A Willy, There’s a Way

14th – 24th February

It’s me, finally climbing out of the revision cave and into the light! There’s a lot to catch up on, and it’s truly exciting stuff – so let me start where I last left off, Valentine’s Day…

We’ve all got romantic ideas about where we’d like to be on Valentine’s Day. Considering I don’t have any kind of romantic partner, my expectations weren’t that high to begin with, but as I stood in the dissection room surrounded by penises, this was not it.

Reproduction lectures were in full swing and I couldn’t keep up with it. Reproduction is the bane of every vet student’s life, but those bits and pieces make up the majority of a vet’s workload. Courtship, love-making, and fluffy baby animals, what’s not to love? Well, apart from the fact that sex in the animal kingdom is for the most part violent, messy, dangerous, and complex, every single species has their own way to tango. Don’t feel sorry for your gynaecologist, at least their patients only have one vagina.

Multiple vaginas!? Oh yes, and the fun doesn’t stop there. We’ve got species with horned uteruses, multiple cervixes, muscular penises, elastic penises, bones in their penises, corkscrew penises, forked penises, s-shaped penises, spiny penises (*cringe*), no penises, inside-out ovaries, one ovary, horizontal testicles, vertical testicles, tilted testicles, scrotal testicles, internal testicles, one opening, two openings, three openings. We’ve got females who are always fertile, fertile once per month, once per year, only in Autumn, only in Spring, every 4 days, every 17 days, every 12 days; females that ovulate every cycle, ones that ovulate only after sex, ones that ovulate during oestrus, ones that ovulate after oestrus, ones that ovulate whenever they bloody feel like it. There are disc-shaped placentas, fuzzy placentas, ring-shaped placentas, knobbly placentas, 115-day pregnancies, 63-day pregnancies, 30-day, 282-day, 157-day, 340-day, and 20-day pregnancies, and a whole bunch of egg incubation periods. There are at least twelve different functions of semen, three different methods of getting an erection, and at least thirty different hormones regulating the whole performance. And that’s just what I can recall off the top of my head.

Biology is absolutely astonishing, and reproduction has to be the pinnacle of performance for that glorious machine we call the body. But oh my God is it complicated. I can learn the information, I can describe each of the countless processes and hormones, but I just can’t do it for all the species. I can’t even honestly say I could do it for all the major domestic species. It just gets so muddled up. Is it pigs whose embryos produce oestrogen to switch PGF2a production from endocrine to exocrine to prevent the luteolytic cascade? Or is that cows? No, cows produce interferon tau to prevent endometrial progesterone downregulation and thereby prevent PGF2a production and luteolysis. Or is that horses? GAH!!

Suffice to say I found it quite a challenging topic.

But there was no point feel sorry about it, you just have to grab the uterus by both horns! So there I was, on Valentine’s Day, standing in a room full of pickled penises. On this degree, I’ve seen bowels, brains, blood and all sorts of untold horrors. But none of it truly bothers me. I make cracks about how disgusting it is, but at the end of the day I’m quite happy to play with it, cut it open, give it a sniff, and then go and have my lunch. All with the exception of penises. I don’t know what it is about them, I know full well that it’s just body tissue like any other organ, but they’re just so obscene. And I’m not particularly talking about human knobs, although they’re frankly not the prettiest appendages in the world, but animal peckers can be truly, utterly horrifying. Don’t get me wrong, I took great delight juggling with the many testicles around the room, but I drew the line at simply observing the Johnsons.

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They were just hanging and protruding and curling out of every specimen all over the room, with their bizzare pointy urethral processes, corkscrew tips, spiky shafts, and weird swellings. Enough. I have all the information I need from this practical, I think if I stay any longer I might actually become a nun.

After this, there followed another three days spent moving between sitting in repro lectures with no idea what was going on, and sitting in repro labs with no idea what was going on. These labs would begin relatively well:

“Hey, Elise, what stage do you reckon this is?”

I popped around the other side of the desk to take a look down my friend’s microscope, “Looks like an early antral follicle to me, the zona pellucida is pretty clear and there’s been differentiation of the theca cells, but I can’t see any real sign of the corona radiata or stratum granulosa yet. Yeah, early antral I think.”

I felt good about my assessment of it. I know what I’m looking at, I remember this from the lecture. I’ve got this. Except instead of becoming more sure of myself the more slides I examined, it just got more confusing. By the end of the very same session, I was back to having no idea what was going on.

“So, if there’s a large antral follicle and a corpus luteum in the left ovary and several small antral follicles in the right, where is she at?” someone asked. The group sat in silence. Good bloody question, friend.

I ran through my thought process out loud, in the hope that my colleagues would either agree or correct my mistakes, “Well, I guess we can say she’s in the luteal phase, so she’s probably not in oestrus or proestrus. But there is a large antral follicle in the same ovary. Clearly there’s been a follicular wave and follicular selection, so progesterone has to be low. How can progesterone be low if there’s a CL? Wait, maybe it’s regressing. Should there be any CL left by proestrus? Shouldn’t it be a corpus albicans by then? Maybe you can’t distinguish luteum from albicans on ultrasound. Oh God, I don’t know. What’s the significance of the small antrals? Maybe nothing, maybe they’re waiting for the next FSH wave. Okay, I’m calling proestrus. No, dioestrus… no, I’m going to stick with proestrus.”

Blank stares. Well, I’m glad we all feel the same way about that.

Friday finished with a three-hour practical that began in the dissection room. The dead horse was wheeled out, still hanging forlornly in his frame, but this time with many of his ribs missing and his abdomen open on both sides, the skin hanging down like some macabre stage curtain. Boy, he was stinking by this point. It’s a very difficult smell to describe, because the tissue is decaying but it’s also marinated in formalin, giving it a kind of spicy quality.

“Okay everybody, gather round,” the tutor was stood next to the specimen with a torch, “As you can see I’ve opened up the thorax and abdomen and we’ll be looking at the viscera today.”

She wasted no time launching into a detailed description of how the structures were arranged in the thorax, “So you can see now that the heart is occupying ribs three to six, you can see it in the cardiac notch of that left caudal lobe, which is why we’re auscultating in those spaces for the different valves…”

Once we’d covered the superficial organs on both sides of the thorax, she moved us all round to the right hand side and began discussing the abdominal organs, groping around inside the cavity with one arm, “Okay, so we identified the extent of the stomach on the left hand side, but it does sit right up behind the liver, which I can feel now. Who’s gloved up?”

She spotted me standing near the back with arm-length gloves on, “Elise, come here.”

I’m not sure why it surprised me as much as it did, because I had put my gloves on for a reason. So I did as she asked, and made my way to the front and up to the horse. The tutor withdrew her arm from the carcase with a squelch, “Right, get in there and find the pylorus of the stomach for me, and get your fingers round the duodenum.”

I eyed the gaping cave of guts. Here goes nothing.

Facing towards the horse’s head, I inserted my left arm in behind the rib cage, and pushed forwards, my arm compressed between the bowels and the slimy body wall. It was unnaturally cold in there, and the gas-filled guts all felt the same under my fingers. Unable to see my hand now I was in up to the shoulder, it was a case of mapping out the organs by touch. I came up against something more solid. Liver?

I’m too lateral, I need to head medial a bit. But when I did that, everything felt soft again. What was I feeling – colon, stomach, jejunum? I was acutely aware that the whole teaching group was standing right behind me, all waiting for me to find what I was looking for. I just couldn’t orientate myself.

I needed a new approach. Instead of trying to find the pylorus and then tracking to the duodenum, I was going to find the duodenum and track up to the pylorus. I knew that the descending duodenum hung like a very short curtain from the roof of the body cavity. So I pressed my hand against the inside of the rib cage and ran it upwards towards the spine. Just as the ceiling of the cavity leveled out, I came up against what felt like a sheet of elastic – the descending mesoduodenum. Hanging from this sheet was a flaccid tube. Gotcha.

From there, it was easy to slide cranially along the duodenum until I hit the muscular stomach, “Yep, I’ve got it.”

“Very good,” the tutor beamed, “I want you to follow it, and tell us all where it’s going.”

I tried to nod, but my face was precariously close to the yellowing muscles of the skinned horse. Sliding back down the duodenum the way I had come, I described its course, “It’s descending caudally along the lateral face of the right dorsal colon. It’s turning medially now… and I think I’m crossing the cranial face of the caecal base. I’m pretty sure it’s between the left and right dorsal colon, and… I think it’s becoming jejunum now.”

“Excellent, why do you think it’s jejunum?”

My head was practically inside the cavity now, “Well, um, it’s falling away from the body wall ventrally, which means that the serosal attachment must be getting very long, and that’s a feature of the great mesentery.” Can I come out now?

“Well done, you can come out now.”

Thank God. As the tutor resumed talking to the group, I pulled back on my left arm and it slid out from between the guts and into the open air. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Jesus wept. The sour stench of death rolled off my slimy arm and square into my face. I turned to walk back to the group, poorly disguising my grimace as a weird smile.

“Wait, no, don’t go away!” the tutor tapped my shoulder, “I need someone to hold the torch for me.” It was probably for the best, I’m not sure my colleagues wanted me standing in their midst any more. And so I took up the position of torch-bearer, which actually gives you the best view in the house, if gore is your thing.

Just as Friday ended with a stink, so Monday began with one.

As promised, the school had provided us with a uterus each, and I sat down at a dissection table with a friend. In front of me was a large two-horned uterus, and my instruction sheet asked me to identify the species. Well, it was bicornuate, but the horns were relatively short, and the cervix felt long and ribbed. Sheep?

Frankly, my first job was to remove the great tennis-ball sized lumps of fat from all over it – clearly an overweight sheep. After this, I did a cursory examination of the ovaries, identifying a couple of corpus haemorrhagica and multiple antral follicles, and concluded that I had no idea what that meant. I arranged the uterus so that the vagina pointed towards me, and began by starting my incision at the external vaginal opening and cutting up towards the cervix.

I stopped at the cervix, and opened the vagina like a book, expecting to see the mucosal wall. Instead, great strings of mucus clung to the flaps I’d make like cloudy yellow mozzarella. It was absolutely full of it, and it stank of fish. What a way to start my day.

I tried to see the opening of the cervix, but I couldn’t see squat past the goop. It took 5 minutes and a huge pile of paper towels to scoop it all out and get a decent view. With the way forward cleared, the cervical opening looked basically like an anus – puckered shut. Hence, ladies, why you cannot lose a tampon up there.

The next job was to continue the incision up the length of the cervix. But no matter how hard I tried, the scalpel just would not go through it. The tough cartilaginous rings put up a fight against all the instruments I used on it, and they slipped and skidded in the mucus, until eventually I managed to crack it using a pair of scissors with both hands. Ah, she’s beauty, she’s grace, she’s elegance and taste.

With the finer proceedings over, I finished by extending the incision all the way up the muscular uterus wall to the tip of one of the horns. Once opened, and scooped free of mucus, I was pleased to see the multiple red nodules on the inside wall. In a human, this would be highly alarming, but in this case it confirmed my prediction of sheep. As for the mucus, the tutor suspected it was pathological, because there really shouldn’t be that much of it.

As soon as I got home, I showered. Not because I particularly mind smelling of fishy vaginal mucus, but because tonight was Vets vs. Agrics night. In negotiations that I don’t actually understand, the University of Edinburgh and a local agricultural college have joined forces. Whatever the technicalities, for the students of both institutions, this simply meant an opportunity to drink like fish.

That night, agricultural students and vet students descended on McSorley’s Irish Bar. The live music was full blast, and the floorboards were flooded from the tables of drinking games filling every space. I can’t claim to know everyone in the vet school, but I had no trouble picking out who were vets and who were agrics. For a start, the majority of the vets are females, and the majority of the agrics are males. But that aside, while the vets were having a hell of a good time, the agrics were absolutely plastered. The lads were all the same: jeans, boots, buzz cut, and striped polo shirts with the collars turned up. Classic.

After spending half a student loan on one measure of spirit, I quickly switched to the cheap and plentiful beer that was fueling most of the antics. That is, if I could get to the bar and back without being chatted up by a farmer.

“Hey, hey – hey!” every conversation invariably opened with charm, “You a vet?”

“I am.”

“I got chickens at home you should come home with me see my cock!”

His mates cheered in the background.

“Think you’ll find there’s an avian flu prevention zone in place at the moment, you have to keep your cocks inside.”

This statement did not register with any of them, and they all stared at me blankly. Yeah, I thought so, “Bye, lads.”

I’d been back at my table all of two minutes before a pair of agrics slid into the opposite bench. Beers sloshing, they grinned at us, “Hallo, are yoos vets aye?”

Their Scottish accents were strong and the music was loud, but his intentions were pretty obvious, “We thank the best icebreaker is jokes! Any of yoos got a joke?”

My friends cringed and look at each other.

“Yep.” I said, and everybody turned to look in surprise, the lads included – they thought they had the stage. “What’s grey and comes in buckets*?”

“I dinnae know.”

“An elephant.”

The vets laughed, but the agrics stared vacantly, until one of them twigged and started punching his mate in the arm, “Oh aye, she said it cums in buckets man, it cums in buckets.” But the poor lad just didn’t get it, and moved onto a slurred joke about cheese and paint and double-gloss-ter. The conversation dried up pretty quickly, we had little in common, and we were all soon distracted by potato wedges and chicken nuggets anyway.

Returning from my last bar trip, I was halted by two agrics holding full pints and shouting, “Referee this round for us, referee it for us vet!”

Didn’t look like I had much choice, “Okay, just one round. Go.”

I tried to avoid getting soaked as they both threw their pints back as fast as they could. I pointed out the winner as clearly as I could to avoid any violent misunderstandings, and then made a break for it back to the table. Soon the agrics had descended into a staggering mass of singing drunks, and Rowena and I called it a night. It had been a strangely brilliant night spending time with people much like the ones I grew up with, and enjoying the spectator sport that is the beer olympics. Cheers.

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*joke credit goes to my Dad, of course

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