One of the things I was most excited to learn in vet school was how to use the ultrasound machine. Three years ago, when I was shadowing a local vet, I thought it was so cool to see how she could quickly locate a bladder; poke a small needle through the skin and the bladder wall to retrieve a urine sample for testing. On a different day, I watched a pregnancy ultrasound of a German Shorthaired Pointer. The breeder wanted to know if the dam had conceived last month, and sure enough, we could all see the fast flutter of a heartbeat. I couldn’t make any sense of the grainy image that constantly seemed to wobble, twist, and flare in brightness, but I could see that fast motion of the fetus’ heart. I bit back my questions as the vet continued to scan the rest of the abdomen—What are you looking at? Is that an organ? Which one? How do you know?—and contented myself with the knowledge that someday, I would know the answers myself.
To my slight disappointment, we didn’t get to learn about ultrasound much until third-year, when we finally had a short, three-week course devoted entirely to learning what normal and diseased organs look like using ultrasound. It was fascinating (and a bit frustrating) to watch video clips over and over, trying to understand what I saw in the grainy images. The biggest clue for me was noticing what part of the abdomen was being looked at. For example, I would expect to see the liver and stomach if the probe was very forward on the abdomen, right near the ribs. If the probe was held lower on the abdomen near the pelvis, I would expect to see the bladder and intestines. Just knowing what organs should be found where was very helpful in grounding me.
I learned a lot when using the ultrasound machine myself, too. During the first lab, the professors rotated us through 6 stations, where we each had several minutes to practice locating a particular organ. (Whoever wasn’t using the ultrasound machine was cuddling/holding the sedated teaching beagles.) It was much easier to understand the ultrasound image when I knew where the probe was and what I was looking for. It was fun, finding the spleen, the gallbladder, the colon… kind of like a scavenger hunt. During the second lab, we broke into groups of 4 and practiced finding the different organs on our own. Learning my way around the ultrasound machine was a great confidence-builder, as well as representing an important milestone.