As vet students, we spend a massive amount of time in lecture halls. We can practice for exams–notes, flashcards, making powerpoints, quizzing our friends, group studying, making lists…we have long educational careers and we have a variety of tools for book learning.
But when it comes to practical skills–some of the most important techniques, procedures, and skills that we have to master for our future careers–can really only be learned through doing and obtaining the right feel for that particular skill.
We have a skills lab, but it isn’t open all of the time; so how do you practice the practical skills?
Some of my solutions seemed silly but definitely worked for me.
My own pets have been subjected to a lot of physical exams, palpation, ear exams and cleaning, nail trims, restraint techniques (my cat actually enjoys being put in a kitty burrito for whatever reason), lameness exams, orthopedic exams, neurologic exams…basically whatever I can use them for, they get to be test dummies for. When we were learning casting and up-ending techniques for sheep, my labrador even doubled as a sheep a few times (she made a very good sheep). I know classmates that utilized roommate’s, friends’ or family pets for the same reasons (maybe not as sheep though).
When it came time to learn IV catheters, I struggled in the small animal labs. I was used to venipuncture on horses–and compared to the garden hose that is the vasculature of a horse, the finesse of hitting a cephalic or saphenous was just beyond me. Additionally, I had a terrible time not getting my hands to shake.
We had some fake limbs and models the clinical skills faculty team had made, but the rubber tubing just wasn’t portraying the feel I needed to develop. So I set out to make my own model. I wanted to be prepared and successful for the lab that we’d actually be placing catheters in live animals.
The model I came up with ended up being rather bizarre. Exam gloves, jello, balloons
The first model was pretty good, but a little small. So we moved on to surgical gloves with a longer sleeve, invested in some party balloons (you know the ones you use for balloon animals) to serve as veins, and the model became more realistic. I’m sure that it could still be refined further to be even more lifelike, but the feel was much closer to a real animal than PVC pipe and thick rubber tubing.
When it came time for our first lab we had to place catheters in, I got it on my first attempt. And in general, my small animal venipuncture has continued to improve.
Once we started into surgical skills, practicing suture patterns took over our lives. We have practice suture boards and my roommate has a SurgiReal pad that we practiced with, but I found every opportunity I could to practice suture patterns. Hole in my breeches? I stitched it up with an inverting pattern and it was good as new. I’ve stitched up many a hole in a dog or cat toy with surgical suture patterns.
One thing my roommate and I recognized the need for practicing was getting more adept and putting on surgical gowns and gloves. You lose a lot of time fumbling around with gloves and we were told the best way to get better at it was just to practice. So we took some extra gowns and sacrificed a pair of our surgical gloves and often practiced on our suture boards, gowned and gloved. We took it a step further and cut off the bottom of one of the gowns (dubbing it the ‘crop top’ gown), and left a pair of surgical gloves in the kitchen. We gowned and gloved whenever we needed to do dishes.
Last year, I was gifted a set of skeletal equine limbs. Weird, I know, but both the horse girl and the vet student in me were super excited to obtain these limbs. I’m still in the process of getting them wired together and into a formal display, but I happened to get them while I was in the middle of an equine topographic anatomy course. My roommate and I laid these bones out across our living room floor and used them to physically feel all the characteristics of the bone, to visualize joint spaces and joint injection technqiues, joint articulations, and locomotion.
When learning practical skills, sometimes there is just no substitute for actually doing that thing–and sometimes that means getting a little extra creative!