Gross anatomy comes to life, almost, at Knoxville's veterinary institution
by Leslie Wylie
Every time Dr. Robert B. Reed sits down at his desk, hundreds of eyes are on him. Or at least hundreds of eye sockets.
As a DVM and associate professor of comparative medicine at the University of Tennesseeâ’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Reedâ’s personal collection of animal skulls occupies dozens of shelves in his compact, windowless office. Some are as big as bowling balls, with crater-like nasal cavities and serrated rows of teeth. Others are so small they could be carved out of a bar of soap. They surround the professor on all sides, as if heâ’s the ringmaster of some postmortem circus and the spectators are floating heads made of empty space and bone.
Compared to the family photos and bobble-head dolls that take up space on many Americansâ’ desks, Reedâ’s choice of office dÃ©cor seems more than a little creepy. At the same time, though, itâ’s intriguing. Morbid curiosity is an unwieldy compulsion, a combination of excitement and fear that makes it near-impossible not to slow down when we pass a messy car wreck, or change the channel when the macabre details of a murder are revealed on the evening news.
At the moment, morbid curiosity is preventing me from exiting Reedâ’s office.
I didnâ’t come here with the intention of writing a story about dead animals. UTâ’s Veterinary Hospital is stuffed to the gills with perfectly noble story ideas: inspirational tales of petsâ’ remarkable comebacks from injury or disease, profiles of UT veterinarians who are pioneers in their fields, interviews with veterinary social workers who are working to bridge the college with the community. The school is an academically competitive institution (only 70 students are admitted each year out of an applicant pool of over 800) thatâ’s on the cutting edge of research. Not to mention photo opsâ"what art director wouldnâ’t have a heyday with that box of pudgy Collie puppies I spotted in the waiting room?
But ever since my accidental foray into Reedâ’s office (the door was open; whatâ’s a reporter to do?), all I can think about is where theyâ’re hiding the bodies. When I posit a politely reworded version of this question to Media Director Sandra Harbison, she decides that a field trip to the necropsy unit is in order.
Necropsy is nestled deep within the Ag Campus hospitalâ’s sprawling, 246,000-square-foot labyrinth of whitewashed hallways, examination rooms and laboratories. Not unlike a human hospital, if it ends in â“-ologyâ”â"radiology, cardiology, oncology, dermatology, pharmacology, et ceteraâ"thereâ’s probably a room or two devoted to it.
The faculty here numbers over 100, catering to clients ranging from household pets to wallabies and water buffalo. Today, white-coated doctors and their students crowd the halls, huddled around computers and surgery charts, discussing symptoms, diagnoses and treatments in Latin-laden medical tongues.
The hallway leading up to the necropsy unit, on the other hand, is eerily quiet. It doesnâ’t take long to comprehend why it isnâ’t a popular place to hang out.
The first thing that hits me, walking inside the room, is the stenchâ"a briny, metallic odor so putrid it sinks straight to the pit of my stomach upon inhalation.
The second thing I notice is the Jeffrey Dahmer-esque collection of jars. Inside them, adrift in thick, murky liquid, there are wrinkled brains, bloated guts, and other assorted animal innards somebody mustâ’ve thought worth hanging onto.
The last thing that catches my eye is a lumpy mass splayed out on a table in the middle of the room. Roughly 10 feet long and wrapped in a tattered black tarp, it looks like the body of a murdered giant, dredged up from the bottom of a lake. Except that it has flippers. And a tail, covered in rotting black flesh.
â“Thatâ’s a bottle-nosed dolphin,â” says Dr. David Rotstein, the dolphinâ’s attending veterinarian, with a giddiness most people reserve for winning lottery tickets.
Rotstein introduces himself as a pathologist with a special interest in the population health of marine animals; heâ’s especially intrigued by unusual mortality events, like mass strandings, and finding ways to prevent them. That Knoxville is hundreds of miles inland doesnâ’t seem to faze him: â“Iâ’m the weirdo here,â” he laughs.
After politely making sure Iâ’m not going to hurl on his shoes, Rotstein opens a nearby box. Inside, thereâ’s a furry mammal with half-shut eyes, the membranes yellow with formaldehyde. â“Weâ’ve got a hooded seal, too,â” he explains.
The two malodorous cadavers will be the subject of a wet lab tomorrow morning, as part of the week-long American Association of Zoo Veterinarians annual conference that the College of Veterinary Medicine is co-hosting this week. Rotstein will systematically pick the animals apart, examine the insides of their bodies, see what they have to teach the visiting veterinarians.
Closing the dead seal box, Rotstein grins. Like most of the people who work here, he seems way too happy about his job.
I suppose you could argue that working with dead animals is easier than working with the ones that are still living. Dead animals canâ’t suffer. You canâ’t save a dead animalâ’s life. Sure, they might smell bad, but at least theyâ’re predictable.
Itâ’s the transition in between the two realms, the living and the dead, that causes vets the most grief, explains Dr. Elizabeth Strand. Strand is the founding director of Veterinary Social Work, a partnership program between UTâ’s Colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Social Work founded in 2002 to support and educate both professions. As we speak, sheâ’s driving home from Nashville, where she gave a lecture on mitigating compassion fatigue in vets earlier this morning.
â“Veterinarians experience death at five times the rate of human doctors,â” Strand says. But death isnâ’t the only stressor vets deal with in the workplace. There are also suffering animals to manage, and the additional responsibility of helping their owners cope as well.
â“Suffering drains you,â” Strand says. â“I try to help veterinary professionals understand that itâ’s normal to feel emotionally drained. It isnâ’t a weakness.â”
When vets donâ’t take the time to â“fill their cup,â” or engage in activities that fulfill them, they put themselves at risk for illness, depression and even suicide. (There is evidence that suicide rates are marginally higher in veterinarians, bolstered in part by their access to lethal means.)
The problem, Strand explains, is that vets donâ’t like to slow down. â“Iâ’ve never met a more hardworking group of professionals than veterinary professionals,â” she says. â“Theyâ’ll work until their fingers bleed.â”
For these reasons, UT sponsors â“Fill Your Cupâ” meetings, hosted by Strand, in the community to help local professionals deal with the stresses of their job. She also hosts free pet loss support groups on the first and third Tuesday of each month, for recently bereaved pet owners.
â“Veterinarians are so compassionate, but it takes a toll of them if they donâ’t take care of themselves,â” Strand explains. â“They have to take the time to nourish themselves.â”
The next stop on my tour of the veterinary hospital, which has now been officially hijacked by my desire to see its weirdest, most gruesome corners: its anatomy lab.
â“Come in,â” says Dr. Robert Henry, opening the door to his anatomy lab. Walking inside, you notice that the bespectacled professor is holding a severed limb in his hand. Itâ’s hard to say what kind of animal it used to belong toâ"something furry, with hooves.
Henry is an expert in the practice of plastination, a technique used to preserve biological tissue. In a nutshell, plastination replaces the dead body or body partâ’s water and fat content with polymers that prevent the specimen from decaying. â“It takes about four months to get, say, a heart finished,â” Henry says. A handful of organs and limbs are drying on a nearby table, placed there as casually as one might pin a pair of underpants out on the clothesline to dry.
If the labâ’s vast collection of organs is any indication, Henry is a hardworking man. The room contains a Noahâ’s Ark of plastinated animals and animal partsâ"ostrich hearts, tiger paws, calf headsâ"as well as an impressive collection of skeletons and animal cross-sections that look like giant slices of bacon.
As morose as it might sound, plastination is a revolutionary practice. Unlike the dolphin corpse down the hall, Henryâ’s collection of dead animals doesnâ’t smell like a morgue. And because you can touch themâ"they feel like tough, rubbery sculpturesâ"they make useful teaching tools.
To be a doctor, of animals or of humans, you have to be intimately familiar with the bodyâ"its structures, its functions, its vulnerabilities. The upside of being an MD is that you really only have to know one species inside and out. A DMV, on the other hand, may have to know dozens. As a result, anatomy class may be one of the toughest challenges vet school students face during their four-year tenure here, but hands-on work in the lab helps them put a face, or a femur, with a name. Having said that, anatomy lab would be a scary place to spend your Halloween.
What Iâ’m finding out, though, is that veterinarians here donâ’t think of it that way. When a professor chooses to spend hours a day surrounded by skulls, or slicing up dolphin corpses, or preserving severed limbs, it has less to do with morbid curiosity than it does a fascination with life.
To their way of thinking, birth, death and everything in between are merely pit stops on the same continuum, one bleeding into the next and all worth exploring. The distance between the plastinated equine digestive tract, tucked into an anatomy lab drawer, and the horse whose belly is in a sling, having just gotten out of colic surgery, is shorter than youâ’d think. The dead help us to better understand the living.
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