Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Beat Goes On

If you think veterinary authors are a rare breed, just wait til you try to find a veterinary musician! But find one I did, as I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Noel Lorica, a small animal vet in West Palm Beach, Florida. During the day, Noel is the sole practitioner at St. Francis Animal Clinic, but any time he's not practicing veterinary medicine, he's composing music, recording, or performing with his band Treebo, specializing in jazz with Latin/Brazilian undertones, a niche Noel has called "wayward jazz". Sample some of the band's music here.
Noel Lorica, DVM
Noel started playing guitar around 12 years of age. His mother desired a more classical instrument for her son and a compromise was made: Noel was allowed to continue guitar if he also took up piano lessons. As Noel got older he says his parents, both professors at the University of the Philippines, "were afraid that my wayward guitar playing in local clubs was going to interfere with my education in veterinary studies but I found it helped having an outlet from the heavy study load."

"It's the process of focusing on the creative side of you that will enhance your life."

Noel says that how he plays now is a far cry from where he started when he was younger. "As with most young men," he says, "rock is usually the first inclination. Parties, girls, rebellion--what more could you ask for? Turns out more than two chords and angst." Noel has learned to blend his self-described "soulful expression" with the guitar with his more classical background in piano to foster an appreciation that each note is unique. This blending led Noel to jazz. "My life's journey also influenced my style. From the Philippines to San Francisco to New York and lastly Florida--as you move, you pick up new styles of music."
Treebo performing
Perhaps people don't often think of a dual career of veterinarian and musician. Noel looks at this balance as a symbiotic system. "I'm not a person who can just sit and relax," he says. "I have to constantly be feeling that I'm moving forward. Sometimes cases are difficult and the daily workload of a sole practitioner can leave little room for sanity. This balance [between veterinary work and music] gives me a mental spacing that I need to maintain focus on the cases. I always keep a guitar at the clinic, for those times of inspiration. And my patients don't seem to complain."
Treebo's album "Run With It"
Together now for over ten years, Noel's band Treebo has had a semi-fluid state of band members but fundamentally consists of guitar, drums, keyboard, bass, and vocalist. The band's name is derived from the phonetic spelling of the word "tribe" in Tagalog. With an ever-growing fan base and gigs at major music festivals and venues, Treebo's music has been in consideration by the Grammy awards committee. Currently, Noel is working on fourteen instrumental Philippine folk songs that he's infusing with jazz and Latin tones for a personal album and Treebo is putting the finishing touches on a Christmas vocal album. "It's been a busy year of recording for us, but I love every minute of it," he says.

I asked Noel if he has any encouraging words for other vets out there who might be searching for a way to pursue a creative outlet. "To paraphrase: just do it," he says. "How you start is irrelevant. Whether it's just a doodle or full canvas, harmonica to cello, it's the process of focusing on the creative side of you that will enhance your life."

Noel's albums and singles are available for download on ITunes. Follow the band on Twitter @treeboband and Facebook.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Writing to Dilute the Wrongs

There is an interesting and at times frustrating dichotomy found in the general opinion of the internet and social media: for some things, the internet is an awesome tool (e.g. ordering bowties for your cat). For other things, it is a terrible, monstrous entity (e.g. hateful platforms, blatantly incorrect and sometimes dangerous information, and trolls). Both the writing community and veterinary industry see both sides. It takes a certain type of talent to rein in the wild beasts of 21st century communication and one veterinarian and author, Dr. Kathryn Primm, has become an expert.
Kathryn Primm, DVM behind the scenes!
Kathryn is a small animal practitioner in Ooltewah, Tennessee, and owner of Applebrook Animal Hospital. In 2013, she published her first book called Tennessee Tails: Pets and Their People and is the "resident vet" for iheartdogs.com and iheartcats.com. Additionally, she regularly produces videos on a YouTube channel, is featured on local radio talk shows, and blogs. So. She seems busy. Luckily for us, I recently got a chance to connect with her. Here's what we talked about.

Surprising to me, Kathryn says her writing career started with her book. "I learned so much in promoting it," she says. "I liked going to the libraries/book signings and talking to new people. I found that people sometimes feel more comfortable with a stranger than with their own vet, so I saw it as an opportunity to encourage people to build relationships with their own vets. I started seeking media queries for chances to talk about the the book, but found that there were many topics people wanted to talk about. As I did interviews on TV and radio, I started to find it really fun."

Kathryn says her incentive for her book was her love of her patients and the role these animals play for their owners as well as for Kathryn as their vet. Finding time to write between appointments and after hours, Kathryn says a second book is on hold as she works on her other writing outlets and acknowledges that her growth as a writer during the process of the first book has helped her. "I am a much better writer now than I was when I started Tennessee Tails," she says. "It comes much more easily to me. I can be more efficient and it does not take me as long."

Given the spectrum of media outlets that Kathryn now has experience in, I asked her which is her favorite. "The most fun I have had lately is with the live stream videos," she says. "I did not think I would like it as much as I do. It is fast paced, fun, and they get a ton of views!"

"I want to give good, credible information to as many people as I can."

Always interested in educating people on various topics of vet med, Kathryn says currently her favorite topics to write about are animal behavior and nutrition. "I feel there is a lot of bad info out there on these topics and I want to give good, credible information to as many people as I can."

Given the various pitfalls of social media, Kathryn explains what she sees as the benefits of engaging with the public via these various platforms. "I see it as an opportunity to get people and pets back to the veterinarians," she says. In the fight against "Dr. Google," Kathryn aims to provide much needed veterinary information that is actually written by a veterinarian. Understandably, there are negatives to this, as well. Other than the time factor, Kathryn says she does receive a lot of online comments from readers who are seeking actual veterinary advice. "Unfortunately, I can't get into specifics of cases and always have to suggest that they see their own vet," she says. "I wonder if they find it frustrating."

"Social media has become a source of information for clients," she says. "You want to be sure that they are getting the best info possible. My goal is absolutely to provide the most accurate and useful information that I can. I do a lot of research and provide citations for those that want to know more. There is so much junk info out there. It is my mission to try to balance it with good info."

"If you love to write, you should."

Despite the ups and downs of working on social media (and the ups and downs with publishing), Kathryn remains upbeat and encouraging to those who might be thinking about dipping their toes in the writing water. "Just start," she says. "Write anything down that is important to you. Just think: what is the worst that can happen? You get to write your thoughts and feelings down in a cathartic journal? That is a GOOD thing! And the best that could happen is that other people love your writing as much as you do and you gain a platform to help them. You never know what life will bring your way. If you love to write, you should."

Friday, July 1, 2016

Gone Fishin'

Well, not technically fishin'. Think summer hiatus. But don't worry. VetWrite will be back in the fall on the usual monthly basis featuring interviews with creatively-minded veterinarians to fill you with insightful thoughts and pictures of kittens. Enjoy your summer, folks.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Textured Life

This month I spoke with Dr. Sid Gustafson, equine veterinarian and author who lives and works in Montana. Sid has just published his third novel, Swift Dam, a story of a veterinarian, Native Americans, and the land. Sid is also the author of numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces, including magazine articles, and a New York Times column. His take on the balance of veterinary medicine with a hobby is refreshing and inspiring for those of us looking for a creative outlet. Here's what he had to say.
Sid Gustafson, DVM, teaching at the University of Guelph
Sid has always written. As a young man in the Air Force Academy and even prior to that working at a cattle ranch away from home, his letters to his parents received accolades. "I didn't think they were any big deal but my father just appeared stunned and commented several times on the nature of the writing in an approving way," Sid says. "When you get patted on the back for writing when you are young, you keep doing it."
Sid's third and most recent novel
Somewhere in the combination of Sid's love of horses and the fact that his own father was a veterinarian, he found himself in the mix and graduated from Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979. His debut novel, Prisoners of Flight was published in 2003. So, how does one go from a history of writing to vet school, only to produce a published novel almost 25 years later? "All I can say is that's how long it takes to learn to write a novel that a publisher would be interested in," he says patiently.
Sid's debut novel available here
Sid acknowledges there wasn't much time to write in college. I can vouch for that. "Through the entire education, I felt deprived," he says, "because there were no humanities required. Everyone else [in undergrad] was taking philosophy and literature and I was taking chemistry. So I wasn't able to write but I could see in vet school, along with the fact that my father was a veterinarian, that there was a lot to be written about."

After graduation, Sid worked on the track with racehorses. "I was fascinated with horses and still am," he says. Returning to Montana to raise a family, Sid was able to find the time to work on the craft of writing. "What I had to do was read an awful lot of novels," he says of those years. He also took college classes on literature, writing, and poetry.

Prisoners of Flight, although published first, was not Sid's first novel. His second published novel, Horses They Rode, was actually his first written novel. "The first novel I wrote could not get anyone interested," explains Sid. The advice from local writing circles was: "Write another one." And so he did.
Sid's second published novel available here
After the success of his first published novel, he was able to then follow with the second.

I like to bother veterinarians with questions about how they find the time to pursue their creative outlets. I bothered Sid with this question as well. "I've always chosen to live in places where there are a lot of veterinarians," he says. The logic was that then his particular practice was never overwhelmed. "I never had a busy veterinary practice and that in fact was one of the things that inspired me to write. You're expected to be in the office during a certain set of hours so I thought I needed to do something to take up the slack while I'm sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. So I started writing--I've always had free time to write."

"Writing seems to be a more textured life than just being a veterinarian alone."

Sid acknowledges, however, that it's not just time that's needed. It's motivation. "Really, [time] is not an issue for writers. They can have all the time they want. It's just finding that space or motivation to write. You have to find the zone. I was always careful to find that. Somewhere back there I always wanted to write. I don't know what the reason is. You want yourself to be published; you want affirmation; you want dialog. It seems to be a more textured life than just being a veterinarian alone."

Sid not only practices veterinary medicine and writes, but also teaches at the University of Guelph as an equine behavior educator. Animal behavior is Sid's passion and his interest in the subject is seen in his non-fiction writing and how he practices veterinary medicine. "The most interesting aspect of veterinary medicine I've ever encountered is animal behavior," he says. "My point has also been to start educating veterinarians about animal behavior because it is the basis of animal welfare." Sid is a strong promoter of adding animal behavior to the educational repertoire of veterinarians. "My last novel tries to educate people about animal welfare and animal behavior."

"I honor every single veterinarian. What a rugged way to make a living."

It's an awesome thought to combine one's creative outlet with a subject that one advocates and this seems like a good tool to prevent burnout. "I was careful not to let veterinary medicine overwhelm me like it seemed to overwhelm a lot of my associates," Sid says. "I think you have to do other things to survive. It's a brutal business. I honor every single veterinarian. What a rugged way to make a living. You got to diversify, get out of the trench a little bit. Avocations of veterinarians are equal to their vocation."

Monday, May 2, 2016

Editing the Journal of Tomorrow

This month I have a unique interview lined up for you all. A few weeks ago I was able to connect with Dr. Marian C. Horzinek, editor-in-chief of Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow, an online, refereed journal that provides reviews and opinion papers (in contrast to experimental data) on the most current research in biological sciences. The journal's noble mission statement captures very well its intent and scope: "Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow is an electronic current awareness journal that aims to encourage and support the worldwide veterinary research community; it also wishes to give the community a sense of identity and appreciation of quality." Perusing the site, you will quickly find yourself immersed in a spectrum of topics as diverse as animal night vision to the genetics of autoimmune disease to a bit of paleontology. And that's just from the past few weeks. Check back again and you'll find updated information, links, and editorials, illustrating just how deep the well is in biological research. How fun to be the editor-in-chief, right? Let's see what Marian has to say about it.

Rewind to 2001. Marian was spending the last decade of his professional career in research administration, founding the Utrecht Graduate School of Animal Health and the Institute of Veterinary Research in the Netherlands. "I had interviewed many of the approximately 80 PhD students and found them focused on their research topic without looking left or right," Marian says. "My students knew everything about every amino acid in every glycoprotein of a corona virus, but nothing about a disease caused by it."

So he started to think.

"A web-based biomedical journal with a current awareness perspective seemed the right thing to do," he says. With moral and financial support from the Dean of the Veterinary Faculty at Utretch along with assistance from a professional web design office, Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow (also known by its web handle VetScite) was born.

At the start, the publication electronically published four issues a year and since 2002, Marian says, this has been continuous with biomedical news updates appearing at twice weekly intervals. The staff for this publication is small but mighty. Dr. Anjop Venker-van Haagen is the editor who works on the majority of the publication with current part-time help from a vet student. Marian notes there are no external funds. "We have never considered sponsoring," he says. "Because of the independence issue, there are always strings attached." The staff also has a cartoonist, Miroslav Pavlicek, whose drawings on the site are crafted from stories the site features and offer a visual component that is creatively exceptional.

"My favorite part of the job is to look at the material Anjop collects, to tweak some details, to suggest topics and discard others and to communicate with the authors, contributors, and students," Marian says. "Several have been or have become personal friends. Anjop is one of them." Anjop herself is a leading expert in ear, nose, and throat diseases of companion animals and author of the textbook on such conditions: Ear, Nose, Throat and Tracheobronchial Diseases in Dogs and Cats.

Perhaps it's important to take a minute to explain the unique niche that Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow fills. "The content of VetScite is not primarily laid out for the veterinarian practitioner," Marian explains. "Neither is VetScite a journal for publishing primary scientific work. This journal intends to fill another niche: it is aimed at the graduate student, the PhD supervisor, the postdoctoral fellow, and academic teacher, the veterinary scholar, the science journalist, the government researcher, the scientist." VetScite instead addresses the forward-looking academic teaching and pathophysiology/animal well-being/veterinary public health research scene, says Marian.

Given this broad brush (and to me, intimidating) approach, just how, then, do Marian and Anjop select content? Interestingly, Marian says he and Anjop look for what they think is funny. "We publish what may lead to new avenues of research, what is novel in the true sense of the word, what raises expectations," Marian says. "After all, the journal is about tomorrow."

"The journal is about tomorrow."

This blog has featured a few cartoonists in the past so it should be no surprise that I was taken by the cartoons published on VetScite, by the above-mentioned Dr. Miroslav Pavlicek. I had to find out more about the man behind these drawings and asked Marian to elaborate. "Miroslav is my cartoonist and a successful companion animal practitioner in a vet hospital in Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic," says Marian. "This is a rare combination and you can tell from his drawings that he knows the scene well. He has illustrated a number of books, advertising material for a vaccine company, and reliably provides new drawings for VetScite about once a month."
Cartoon appearing in VetScite, by Miroslav Pavlicek

You may notice that the cartoons on VetScite aren't there for the laughs, per say. Instead, they provide comment on a current article referenced on the site. "As most persons with a sense of humor, he is not funny, but rather considerate and thoughtful," Marian says of Miroslav. "His way of lateral thinking finds humorous aspects in any scientific discovery, which he portrays in his characteristic style."
Cartoon appearing in VetScite, by Miroslav Pavlicek

Moving forward, Veterinary Sciences Tomorrow continues to utilize multimedia technology and explore new and exciting topics as they relate to OneHealth. (The OneHealth concept is a large focus of Marian's work.) Since he and his staff are looking at the very edge of new biomedical research, I asked Marian about trend spotting. "Quite generally, any new technique or method that enters the biomedical scene initiates a trend," he says. "Cancer and immunology, ageing and neurology, genomics and behavior have been our focus, among others." Visit the tags in the News articles on the site to get the latest and greatest. To stay in-the-know, subscribe to their newsletter.

Until next month, dear readers!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Fundamentals of Form and Function

This month, I have a feast for the eyes to share with you. Talking with Dr. John Plishka, a small animal veterinarian and pastel painter in northern Illinois, we explore how creative expression through art helps provide balance to the scientific brain. Oh, and how horses are the most gorgeous creatures on the planet. Duh.
"Tiger's Eyes" by John Plishka, DVM
John credits a lot of his artistic talent to his mother. "I've seen some of Mom's old drawings that she did when she was a kid and they are amazing, so I think a lot of my talent was given to me by her," he says. "To me, art has always come easily but as I got older, I realized I had to refine it and take it more seriously."

Although John took art classes throughout high school, the academic demands of undergrad and vet school became the priority. "My drawing frequency really decreased significantly at that time," he says. "But about five or six years out of vet school, for whatever reason, the urge to paint started coming back pretty heavily. I started drawing and painting, mostly with oils. But I've always liked painting with pastels and that has been my media of choice for the past few years. Pastels are quick, you can re-work it easily, and you don't have to wait for it to dry. And this whole time, I started re-discovering my creative side again."
"Day is Done" by John Plishka, DVM
At this point, John got serious about his art. "I wanted to take it to the next level," he says. While still practicing veterinary medicine, he started taking art classes and found an instructor who guided refinement into his work and helped with his mistakes. "I think a big part of it was confidence for me, knowing that I could actually really paint and make something that was really, really good."

Soon, John's work was attracting attention. He entered a few contests, won awards, and, as the saying goes, never looked back. "[Winning awards] really helps with the confidence," he acknowledges. "Knowing I can do that and be good at it. A big thing for me was then becoming a member of the Academy of Equine Art. That was a big goal for me. It was quite an honor to be accepted into that circle of people who are really the best equine artists in the country. I still don't think I'm worthy of that!"

This concept of confidence keeps coming back, this fact of human nature that John endearingly tangles with--this tiger in the weeds--despite his obvious talent. "Like everything, you're never really there," he says. "You have to keep striving. I think the day an artist can be satisfied with something is the day he needs to hang it up." Which, of course, can be said of all professions, I believe (especially writing...). I compare this to another painter's observation: "If we all have continuous confidence in our creativity, it would become dull and not very inspiring," says Lida van Bers.

Through all of John's artistic accomplishments, remember he's still a full-time veterinarian, with all that entails, so naturally, the common concern of time meanders into our conversation."Now, it's just about finding the time," John says. "I do a fair number of commissions now, but those cut into your creative time so it's a bit of a double-edged sword. The more you work, the more people want commissions, but the more commissions you have, then the less you're able to express yourself how you really want to." John sees himself as having perhaps about ten more years in the veterinary profession before he retires and then dedicates himself solely to his art.

"A little to the left" by John Plishka, DVM
The majority of John's work, as you see on his Facebook page, is of horses. He has a few reasons why this is. "One is that obviously they are just amazingly beautiful animals," he says. "Horses are the consummate example of form and function with their muscles and tendons as power and levers. You look at a horse and it not only satisfies the artist but also satisfies the engineer in you because it's just amazing how they are put together. With horses, it's like watching a tool at work. All the cogs are there to see." John also has an interest in military history, in which of course horses have a major role.

"You look at a horse and it not only satisfies the artist but also satisfies the engineer."

In previous conversations I've had with veterinary painters, the science of anatomy features heavily in their work and with John, this is no exception. Being a vet with extensive knowledge in anatomy has been extremely helpful, he says. "It's not even just with horses. It's with everything. If you're painting an eye, you know what's in there. Being a vet, I know animals literally inside and out." At an art show a few years ago, John recalls a woman who was able to identify the breed of horse in his painting even though it wasn't even a full head shot. "She was able to identify it as a Thoroughbred and she said 'He's got his anatomy spot on,' " recalls John. "And that was a great compliment."
"Eye Candy" by John Plishka, DVM
Ultimately, however, practicing art is about how the creative process makes you feel. "Painting brings me a lot of peace and joy," John says. There was a period in John's veterinary career where he says he experienced some burn out. "When I look back at that time, I wasn't as creative," he says. John observes that the amount of creativity in our lives parallels our moods. "Creativity helps us see that other side of life; it makes for a better situation, gives us more perspective."

"Creativity helps us see that other side of life...it gives us more perspective."

We end our conversation discussing my favorite piece of John's, a painting titled "Cascade." This painting was done from a photo John took at the Midwest Horse Show in Madison, WI a few years ago (most of John's pieces are from photographs he's taken at an earlier time). "This was a breakthrough piece for me," John says. He hadn't been painting for a while due to various health issues but he came back with this work. The title refers to the flow of the horse's mane. "I felt that even though the animal was black, I marveled at how many colors are actually in the void of color. The mane reminded me of a waterfall."
"Cascade" by John Plishka, DVM
And with that exquisite image, I'll end things here. Until next month!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Doing Diversity with the Canine Conga

Veterinarian Dr. Betsy Sigmon, owner of Creature Comforts Animal Hospital in Cary, North Carolina, has recently published her first book: a children's book titled Cha Cha ChocoBelle and the Canine Conga. I caught up with Betsy last month to pick her brain about her writing experiences and how using her creativity to educate the younger generation can make a difference.

A champion of educating the young, Betsy utilizes both her own clinic and other venues to host Kid-Vet days where children visit and learn about being a veterinarian. This includes instruction on how to conduct a physical exam (kids use stethoscopes to listen to their own hearts and sometimes the hearts of a helpful volunteer dog) and how to look at radiographs, as well as watching procedures such as cleaning a dog's ears and acupuncture. Just this past January, Betsy's clinic held its first annual kids vet camp. Betsy says her experiences teaching children about veterinary medicine was part of her inspiration to write a book. "It was a combination of things," she says about her inspiration. "Funny interactions, watching kids' eyes light up when they hear a heart beat, and frankly a way to say thanks to all those who helped me along life's journey."

The title character of Betsy's book was inspired by her very own dog, a rescue Chihuahua-Dachshund mix named Taco Belle, who, says Betsy, helps keep her grounded as she makes tough medical decisions. "There's lots to be said for rescue animals that don't have a great pedigree," she says.
Taco Belle and Betsy's son last Christmas - courtesy B. Sigmon

In fact, Betsy's book focuses on diversity as the main character ChocoBelle--whose journey to find a home helps her discover her love of dance--encounters disabled and rescue animals. "I tried not to duplicate any current kids series and also to be inclusive of minorities and animals with disabilities," Betsy says.

Betsy admits to what I've always wondered--that writing for children is deceptively hard. "It was a stretch," she says. Writing for younger people doesn't mean dumbing it down; it means writing differently. Madeleine L'Engle, author of the well-known children's book A Wrinkle in Time, once said: "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

"In mentoring students from North Carolina State's College of Veterinary Medicine, I make them write a two page continuing education article on a particular subject that a 7th grader can read," Betsy continues. "So I simply take it one step further to write for a 7-year-old to read. I bought a few kid's books to get in the groove and put the content of my story on my iPhone notes."
Photo: Kathyrn Trogdon

For younger readers, Betsy says an author has a double challenge--to make the work fun for both the child and the reader. "I put some surprises in the drawings that adult humor will pick up, but the kids not so much," she says. "The biggest 'like' report is when I hear parents state the book has become a repeat read."

Although this first book is directed toward kids, Betsy also writes a blog (Taco Belle Times) on her clinic's website that adults will find helpful. "The blog shows a side of me when not wearing a lab coat," she says. "It lets me explain a topic in the news that may have human, pet, or One Health implications in a manner that hopefully simplifies the content from a veterinary article or national news. I enjoy writing for both kids and adults."
Betsy Sigmon, DVM, teaching students about veterinary medicine - courtesy B. Sigmon

Despite a modest proliferation of published vet memoirs over the past few years, children's books on the topic of veterinary medicine are still few and far between. Both Betsy and myself aren't sure why this is, as it would seem that animals and medicine are a mix rife for the interest of the young. However, Betsy looks at it in a positive light and acknowledges how challenging it can be to educate young people. "It is a challenging job for teachers to meet the expectations of parents, kids, and administrators," she says. "This book is my personal way to show humble gratitude to those educators that inspired me."

Betsy has a reverent respect for the scientists who have worked in the past and continue to work toward making the future bright. "The research scientists that go to work each day to make a difference in the long run, the companies that invest in long term research and development, the discovery of the DNA helix by Watson and Crick, and the veterinary and medical clinicians that challenge themselves to improve the lives of others--those are my heroes," she says. "I have been placed in a position to inspire young children in a positive manner while sharing our profession--pretty cool!"
Photo: Kathyrn Trogdon

In classrooms and libraries when Betsy has gathered a young group to learn about heart murmurs and ingested foreign bodies, she tells the kids this: "When you win the Nobel Prize, I am expecting a first class ticket to the award ceremony because I know one of you today is going to be an extraordinary scientist from this day forward!"

I don't think you can get much more inspirational than that.

Catch you next month!