Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Puppy Love

Looking back on med school, one thing crests the long list of second thoughts: dog labs. Growing up, I always had a dog. Having left home, when I returned to visit, a dog was always there. (From sublime to ridiculous: Buttons, my confidant, my purveyor of love when I felt otherwise, smarter than any; to Fred the disagreeable.) We recently returned from dog-sitting our grand-dog, a Chocolate Lab, the sweetest guy in the dog parks, Dutch the dog who has never known anger, doesn't even have it in his vocabulary, the luggiest of the big lugs. I love dogs. I approached my first dog lab with trepidation and discomfort.

Smelling musty and slightly feculent, the room held around twenty lab tables of the old-fashioned kind: little sinks, taps, gas outlets suggesting that at some time they supported bunsen burners. On a dozen or more of the tables were dogs, lying on their sides, already anesthetized, looking peaceful and vulnerable. One or two had evacuated their bowels. (We'd been spared the sight of the technicians accessing veins and injecting the pentothal. And the dogs had been spared having us doing it: we'd have made a mess of it.) I don't remember the goal of the work. I do remember that when my partners and I began to reposition our dog, he awoke with frightened cries. Without another thought I turned heel and vacated, waiting in the hall until I heard silence, after the techs responded and re-dosed. With persisting uncertainty, I re-approached the table and helped tie the dog onto his back, shaved his belly. I think I was the one to make the initial incision. If there'd been any further evidence of response by the dog, I'd have remembered it.

It's probably significant that I have no recollection of what it was we were to learn that day: some physiological truth or another. What I do remember is that at some point I got swept into the thrill of handling living tissues, seeing vessels pulsate; touching, smelling, holding. Using surgical instruments. If memory serves, it was my first clue where I was headed. But at the end, as we unceremoniously dumped the dogs into black bags and left, I felt it again: it seemed a waste. They'd told us these were strays from the local pound, doomed to destruction one way or the other. Still, I felt a sadness as I walked away. We'd done, for our own purposes, something not entirely honorable. Whatever it was that we studied that day, our education wouldn't have been less without it.

During the summer after that first year, I got a fellowship to work in the lab of a world-famous heart surgeon. There, we implanted prototype valves into dogs (I assisted some -- never did the actual surgery, of course.) We also worked on a membrane oxygenator: an artificial lung, of sorts. This was important work, and I had then nor have now any reservations about its rightness. But these were my kind of dogs: big mutts, bred there for their size and broad chests. Each morning when I'd arrive at the lab I'd head to the cage containing our latest patient, and he'd whimper and drag himself toward me for a pat on the nose, having no clue what had happened but happy to get a little love. Despite the certainty that it was proper, that there really was no alternative way to test these life-saving devices, it always brought tears to my eyes as I scratched behind his ears, the way my dogs had always liked it.

Dogs don't have differing blood types: a donor provides for any recipient. Our "donors" were greyhounds from the racetrack; the losers. By now, I'd learned to find and access their veins myself, which I did as I tried to calm their high-strung anxiety. After a dose of pentothal they went down, and I made a neck incision to get to a main artery to the brain -- the carotid -- into which I inserted a large catheter and let the dog bleed to death into blood bags. I knew what I was doing, they didn't, as I petted them and mishandled their trust. Dogs willingly jump into a fray to rescue their people, yet this seemed unfair.

Those particular heart valves have saved countless lives. (The oxygenator didn't work out.) It was an important project, and I was proud to have worked there. On return to school, my learned skills allowed me to help other students with some of the surgical aspects of the next dog labs, making the surgery cleaner and the labs therefore more meaningful. It's a little part of who and what I became. Later on, in training, I skipped over a potential research year where I'd be operating on monkeys. I didn't like the way they had to be kept in little high-chairs after, to keep them from pulling on their tubes.

I'm a pragmatist. I don't claim human superiority over animals in some sort of moral sense, but I can rationalize that we do research using them. I'd like to think that it's done humanely everywhere, but I know it's not. Ever more realistic, computer simulations and modeling are becoming widespread; surgical trainees can acquire a significant portion of the skills they need in such a lab. Boeing produces planes that fly just as predicted, and fit together without ever having been pre-tested, using only super-computers. If the day arrives when med students never play with dogs the way I did, I'll be delighted; and perhaps it'll also happen that mankind will figure itself out at a desk, with silicon chips instead of in a lab, with animals.


Vanda said...

I know animal testing has to be done. But this blog entry made big fat tears run down my face.

How I wish there was a better way to help humans.

rlbates said...

I too have misgivings about the dog lab we used as surgery residents. I wish I had something to add, other than "I second that".

I love my chocolate labs.

Elaine said...

Me too.

Cathy said...

Any of us who ever took any science labs in college, can some what relate. First day of second Qtr. when I walked into lab and found that dead cat laying in front of me, thats when I knew I had made a mistake with my major. At that time I was in a R.N. program. I had lived all my life wanting to become a nurse, but this cat freaked me out. I managed to get through that Qtr. (although it was my lab partner who had to make the incisions) and learn everything we were supposed to learn, but my thrill of becoming a nurse was gone. Later, in third Qtr., when we had a human cadaver, it did not effect me much as this cat did. Maybe because i knew the cat died "Only" so I could learn something, whereas the cadaver, had nothing to do with me.

I found my calling in chemistry and forgot about Anatomy.

Anonymous said...

My medschool stopped dog labs right before I started (graduated in 2003). From what I hear from friends who trained at other places, they've become the exception and no longer the rule.

Anonymous said...

in my biomed degree we killed one mouse, and used it's spleen for immunology labs.

i found that quite hard, i'm sorta hoping the med school im starting at (next week) wont be using dogs as your did, that would be very difficult to handle.

Dr. Val said...

I spent a year doing basic science research at the Mayo Clinic. They had a floor full of beagles that used to bark and whine and howl... Their cries still haunt me, even though I never saw them face-to-face. I was just passing through to get to my PCR-oriented vaccine lab. So sad... let's hope we don't need to experiment on animals in the future.

Unknown said...

I did radiopharmaceutical research for two years. When we finally got into the animal testing stage with rats I bowed out. I just don't have it in me. I agree that animal testing is a good thing, but often we do so without really being certain of its necessity. People agree to give themselves up to science, animals don't.

mscriver said...

aI suppose there is a three-step process here: first, convincing oneself -- not in a phony way but really thinking hard -- that the act is necessary. Second, doing the act with all due diligence, with all the skill and art that one can. Third, using the knowledge gained wisely and well.

And one must always thank the animal for what has been given. it's the careless, callous, tough stuff that is abominable.

In my animal control days I killed dogs and held fearfully injured dogs while the vet found a vein and "put them to sleep." It wasn't them being dead that was so painful, it was the crossing, the becoming dead. Often ghastly painful after some kind of accident or attack UNTIL the needle went in and the dog just kind of melted in my arms.

Prairie Mary

Bongi said...

this is truly the first i've heard of dog labs. until now i didn't know medical students anywhere worked on dogs giving the ultimate sacrifice. i'm not opposed to animal testing in principle, but i'm not convinced a bunch of wet behind the ears medical students cutting up dogs is testing. i'm not sentimental, but i don't think the above is necessary.xilklq

Greg P said...

My first exposure to some serious live animal wasting (what else can I call it?) was in college in a biochemistry course, watching the prof grab a lab rat by the tail, swing it around, whacking its head on the edge of the lab table -- alleged to "stun" the animal -- after which he quickly put it in a guillotine-like device and chopped its head off, just like that. Supposedly, if you gave then anesthetic, you messed up whatever biochemistry we were trying to study.
One can only hope that these things get reviewed as to their educational value, both on a small and larger scale, to make sure all of this is necessary. But we still live in a time in which we have sanitized and removed from view the routine killing that comes about in the production of the meat we eat. I say this as someone not a vegetarian.
An interesting sidelight, however in your particular story, Sid, is an article I read in Science not long ago, in which dogs and chimpanzees were compared as to their human interactions. It turned out that dogs had an innate ability to connect with humans, reading their emotional states and lots of body language that chimpanzees just didn't get.

Anonymous said...

I'm in medical school now, and we don't have any dog labs. There's a physiology elective that includes a pig lab. I'm not taking it, but I'd much rather use a pig than a dog. Like Sid, I've always had dogs, but I don't think I'd feel any connection to a pig. Maybe that's why they use them.

Sid Schwab said...

Xerxes: that, and the fact that internal pig anatomy is closer to that of humans. Unsurprisingly, I suppose.

Unknown said...

Here's another medical student chiming in to say I never did dog labs and I'm glad I never did. That might've been the straw that broke the camel's back.

Though I did do two summers of research - one on rats, and another on mice. The summer with the mice, I had to kill them pre-experimentation, in a rather brutal manner similar to the one another commenter described. At the time, I had two pet mice.

The thing that haunts me is that I'm not sure that anything ever came of either summer's work. I'd hate to think that I was responsible for so many needless deaths.

Jo said...

Sid, just to let you know: not all Greyhound blood donors are bled to death. My old pal Buckminster Fuller El Greyhoundo was a donor for years at the local vet clinic. He was the calmest guy I've ever seen, even when he was getting his radial vein accessed...and he saved a number of other pups through donating blood.

Thank God I never had to do labs on anything other than formalin-preserved cats. That was horrible enough.

Anonymous said...

Depending in which country you do your training, will dictate what creatures you operate on. In France, it was dogs, Papua New Guinea, the same, but in Australia it is generally, pigs.
Being a dog lover, i found it hard to cut open even stray dogs in PNG, and to hear that they allowed them to 'expire' after surgery made me feel shameful.


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