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Looking Back at Veterinary Medicine 40 Years Ago.

Posted by Jessica Gramlich on Sep 4, 2015 7:30:00 AM

By Bradford P Smith, DVM, DACVIM, Professor Emeritus

Ever since I was old enough to watch Marlin Perkins show us how they cared for the animals in the Bronx Zoo, I had wanted to be a veterinarian. I spent hours as a boy catching snakes, frogs, turtles, and all sorts of other wild creatures. When I finally made it to veterinary school during the 1960’s at the University of California, Davis, we went to class all day, Monday through Friday, and studied very hard to master the subjects. Everybody took the same courses for three and a half years. I particularly remember that we were taught basic small animal surgery in year three in a converted garage using pentobarbital as the anesthetic. During our final year, we went to class from 8 to 10 am and spent the rest of the day in the clinic. In the second semester of the fourth and final year we got to take either large animal or small animal clinics. Like many public universities in those days, the University of California was largely tax supported and inexpensive. The state invested in education and reaped the benefits through a vibrant society full of entrepreneurs. Tuition for veterinary school was approximately $200 a year! As a result, most of us graduated without significant debts. How that has changed!

The clinic was divided into the large animal hospital, which was a large room in a building and a barn, and the small animal clinic, which consisted of 6 small exam rooms with wooden tables and not much else. There were also rooms for radiology, surgery, and a pharmacy and central services area. Crystalloid fluids were homemade in the pharmacy and came in glass bottles, which was often times a problem around large animals. One of our faculty members, Dr. Tennant, had an interest in fluid therapy and was breaking new ground by giving large volumes of crystalloid fluids intravenously to colicky horses and hypovolemic animals. Hanging a 3 liter glass bottle of fluid next to a sick and skittish horse turned out to be quite an experience, and we broke many bottles trying.

One intern had seen a tracheal wash done in a human and decided we should try that on a horse with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. I meticulously clipped and shaved the area over the trachea, we used a local anesthetic, made a stab incision, inserted a large metal bleeding trocar into the trachea as a stylet to introduce the catheter into the trachea, and using sterile gloves fed the silastic tubing (catheter) down the trachea. We injected 20 ml of sterile saline, the horse coughed, and we retrieved 2 or 3 ml of saline and started to withdraw the tubing while continuing to aspirate. As we withdrew the tubing, the trocar cut it in half, allowing it to fall deep into the trachea. After a moment of horror on the intern`s face, the horse coughed vigorously and the catheter flew out the nose! “Perhaps”, he said sheepishly ”next time we should immediately withdraw the trocar after passing the catheter”. The intern went on to become a well respected equine clinician.

One weekend, I went in to treat several hospitalized large animal patients. I found that one horse had developed a serious foul smelling diarrhea and fever. The attending clinician came in and decided that the horse might be developing salmonellosis. It was moved to the small “portable” barn, which had been built out back to serve as an isolation facility. The problem was that nobody wore boots, disinfected cleaning equipment, changed coveralls, or made any real attempts to isolate horses with diarrhea. As you might expect, several more horses developed salmonellosis and died. That episode peaked my interest in studying Salmonella infections in large animals, and I spent much of my research effort as a faculty member studying salmonellosis.

Neither large animal nor small animal facilities had imaging other than radiographs. There was no ultrasound, CT, or MRI. Flexible endoscopes were not available. We had a good microbiology laboratory, but very few antimicrobial drugs had been developed, and we mainly used penicillin, ampicillin, and tetracycline. Dr. Schalm was doing state of the art complete blood counts, but only a few clinical chemistry tests were available. Inhalation anesthesia was fairly new and recoveries were usually not smooth. The only practical drug available for short field anesthesia, for procedures such as castration, was a short acting barbiturate, thiamylal sodium. Xylazine and ketamine had not yet arrived. One could spend 10 minutes castrating a horse and then an hour recovering the horse.

Veterinary medicine has changed tremendously in the ensuing 40 years, and will continue to change during your career. You will need to change and adapt to keep up with these changes. You also need to be able to recognize that some “facts” of today may turn out to be incorrect. As long as you are aware that medicine is a continually changing field, and you are able to stay motivated and can keep up with new updates in the field, you will be able to understand, change, and adapt to it. This will allow you to be a better veterinarian and hopefully help you to continue enjoying your chosen profession. If you fail to continually learn, adapt, and stay current, you are in danger of burning out, becoming stagnant, and bored. Be open to learning new things, know how to adapt, and be curious for your entire life.

Topics: Career

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