Today was the start of a two-week vacation; my first break since senior year began in May. At Colorado State University, senior year is a full twelve months of two- or three-week rotations. Each rotation is with a different department at the Vet Teaching Hospital, or students can do externships off campus. I just finished eight rotations, and finally getting to relax for a couple of weeks is sure nice.
My senior year started with necropsy, which are autopsies done on animals, and it has been one of my favorite rotations. I was not expecting to enjoy this rotation, as this was one of my most frustrating subjects from the first three years of vet school, but I really, really enjoyed the work. Well, I enjoyed everything but the smell.
Most corpses were not overly stinky or too decomposed, and it was possible to get used to the off-putting smells, but occasionally a body would come in several days after it had died. Then, I had to work fast and walk away from the table now and then to suppress gag reflexes. All of the necropsies were interesting; sometimes I would read a history and expect to see signs of a disease but never found them. Conversely, other times I would expect a pretty mild necropsy and find something wrong that no one had predicted. I learned from all the necropsies and usually we could give the owner definitive answers, even if it was just to assure them that they did the right thing for their pet by electing for euthanasia.
A neat aspect of this rotation was the range of species we worked on. Beyond cats, dogs, horses, and cows, we were brought a yak, elk, deer, wolf, mink, songbird, turtle, and several chickens. I doubt if I will ever work on some of these species in a rural vet practice, but it reinforced the importance of knowing anatomy in order to treat an animal.
Another aspect that I did not anticipate were the legal cases that were brought in by individuals looking for answers. Just like weeknight TV dramas, we were asked if we could identify the animal, how did it die, what were the injuries, and who was at fault. The details of these cases, though confidential, were so intriguing that I found books by forensic veterinarians and learned how to tell man-made injuries from natural ones, antemortem changes from postmortem changes, and, unfortunately, just how awful some humans have treated animals. Luckily, the legal cases during my two weeks were not malicious.
With each animal, we did our best to answer the owner’s questions and learn what we could while maintaining the dignity of the deceased animal. Before necropsy, I had not seen the insides of many animals, and especially not of unusual species. Even with ultrasound and radiographs, the visible effects of a disease are often a mystery to a veterinarian unless an exploratory surgery is done. Being able to see the devastation caused by different disease processes really led to a greater understanding of those diseases and a greater empathy for the patients fighting those diseases.