Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wormy Wednesday!

Wormy Wednesday!

It’s been a grotesquely long time since I’ve done a Wormy Wednesday, but I have good reason for one today, so here we go!  

A few weeks ago I had the great privilege to visit the United States’ National Parasite Collection (USNPC).  Bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing, did you?  Tucked quietly away at a USDA office in Beltsville, Maryland, an extremely unassuming building, nay, the BASEMENT of the building, holds the most amazing collection of parasites, both endo and ecto, in the world.  This is not just uber-veterinary-nerd-hyperbole.  It really does house the largest specimen collection in the world.  Of course it helps when most of your specimens are teeny tiny like fleas and sections of cattle liver fluke on a microscope slide.

Walking into this basement is a surreal experience.  At first, you just see compressed shelves – you know, the type that are on rollers to save space.  But when the shelves are opened up and you peer down one, you see jars upon jars of things in formalin.  And I love jars of things in formalin.  There’s just something fascinating and creepy all at the same time about something that’s been preserved for the past fifty years in a Mason jar filled with yellowing liquid.  Maybe this is the mad scientist in me speaking out.  I don’t know.  Perhaps I’m abnormally riveted by this sort of stuff.  

Yay! Random jars!
My abnormalities aside, the breadth of the collection combined with its history is practically awe-inspiring.  There were specimens in there from the last half of the 19th century!  The host animals ranged from the dog to Antarctic seals. 

However, in my opinion, for any parasite collection to be worth its salt, it must contain one of my most favorite parasites: the canine giant kidney worm.  My fascination with this parasite dates back to my vet school days in parasitology class, sophomore year.  Our professor had a modest collection of parasites for lab use, as most parasitologists do.  During labs we would examine ad nauseum the feeding and breeding apparati of various nematodes, trematodes, and cestodes (ooohh, look at that spicule!  Wow is that an excretory pore or what?) of prepared slides which were more than showing their age under the microscope.  Most interesting to me were the jarred specimens sitting at the front bench.

There was one specimen that immediately caught my eye – a kidney cut longitudinally.  Within this kidney was a worm.  Just a worm.  This thing had obliterated the entire inner structure of this organ and set up shop inside.  It was horrifying.  And so extremely fascinating.  Here are the deets:

The giant kidney worm is more politely called Dioctophyme renale, or D. renale for short.  It’s true host is the mink but occasionally an unlucky dog can become an unsuspecting host.  Eggs of D. renale are passed in the urine of the infected animal.  These eggs then go through a complicated life cycle involving various intermediate hosts such as fish and frogs.  With each pass through an intermediate host, the parasite slowly matures.  Then a mink (or dog) comes along and eats a fish or frog that is harboring these developing larvae.  Once ingested, the larvae of D. renale migrate eventually to the kidney where they grow to adults, breed, and pass eggs into the urine to start the life cycle over.

Here is D. renale in all its kidney-destroying glory.
One of the most interesting details of this parasite is that it only ever infects one kidney, and specifically, almost always the right kidney.  Although I’m not sure why the predilection for the right kidney, the parasite seems to know that if both kidneys were infected, the host animal would die.  And when you’re a parasite, you don’t really want your host to die, otherwise you're out on the street looking for a new place to rent.  So this adaptation of the one-kidney-only rule allows for the successful survival of this parasite.

Unlike common gastrointestinal parasites like tapeworms and roundworms which reside in the intestines and can cause weight loss and diarrhea and are diagnosed via fecal sample, D. renale is usually diagnosed when the host animal succumbs to kidney failure (since one kidney has been obliterated).  Treatment is removal of the infected kidney.

Although this all sounds really scary, fear not.  Even though the parasite has been reported across the United States, it is really, really rare to find it in dogs.  Are you a mink owner?  Well, then maybe be a little more worried about it.  I don’t know – I don’t treat minks.  Prevention is to not let your dog eat raw fish, frogs, and other icky wigglies out in the wild…. But try telling that to a Labrador.  Good luck.

A mink. Because I wasn't quite sure what one looked like. Appears similar to a ferret. Man, those are some beady little eyes!

So, anyway, to get back to my epic adventure in the halls of the USNPC, with bated breath I asked the question: “Do you or do you not have the giant kidney worm?”

And I was not disappointed.

There, on a table, was a dog kidney encased for eternity in a clear block of plaster.  Inside this kidney was D. renale, all curled up and tucked in, cozy as could be.  Amazing.  My trip was complete. Sadly, there were no postcards to purchase.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Watching the sunset from 7-11

I have a thing about sunsets.  I guess you could consider me a connoisseur of sunsets.  I enjoy sunrises too, but their timing is somewhat antagonizing, being at dawn and all that.  It's hard to really enjoy a sunrise during the weekday between the shower and the letting the dog out and the forgetting the coffee mug on top of the car as you pull down the driveway. 

When I used to make farm calls more often than I do now, I often saw both sunrises and sunsets in the same day due to long hours in the truck.  There was something nice about going to a dairy before sunrise, pulling a calf in the dark pre-dawn hours, and then walking back out to the truck under a pink and glowing sky. 

Now I feel I collect sunsets and sunrises.  I photograph them whenever possible, and take a moment to enjoy them whenever I can.  Our house, sitting in its cramped and impervious-to-nature subdivision faces east and I can catch glimpses of the sunrise from our second story bedroom window.  This has led to many a fleeting image of sunrise from a camera poking out at 6 am on a wintry morning. 

Winter sunrise out the bedroom window
Unfortunately, our house has no view of the sunset.  We sit in a slight dip and the backyard offers a marvelous view... of the neighbors' backyards.  However, drive up a small hill out of the neighborhood and across the street to the 7-11.  There, in the parking lot facing due west is a fairly unobstructed view of the sunset.  And so I sit in my Honda Civic sometimes just to watch the sky.  And occasionally eat ice cream.  

View of the sunset at my 7-11

Over the years of sunset observation, I have learned a thing or two.  I've found that winter is usually the best season for the most colorful sunsets (and sunrises) and I've also observed that tumultuous weather sometimes yields the best sunsets of all.  It's all about cloud placement.  And a little luck.  Of course there's some science behind it, too.  For some really good info on sunsets, visit NOAA's website here

Interestingly, on self-reflection, I don't actually find sunsets particularly inspiring for writing, at least not in the way other things affect my neurons like a hike in the woods or a good bike ride.  Perhaps if I were a painter I would glean more creative sustenance from a sunset.  But that's ok.  Maybe it's because when I watch a sunset, my head is empty.  I'm enjoying it for what it is - a fleeting colorful image that is changing before my eyes and will be gone in minutes.  Indeed, I've had sunset experiences where I've run for the camera only to find upon return that the colors are no longer as vibrant as they were only minutes before.  There's probably some deep metaphor on life buried in here somewhere - feel free to find it and let me know.

We have an upcoming trip to the Pacific Northwest in about a month.  I'm really looking forward to catching a sunset or two over the Pacific.  Until then, the sunset around here occurs around 7:45 pm.  If you're passing through the 7-11 at that time, you just might see me.  I'd like to share a few more sunsets/sunrises with you as collected on various travels.  Enjoy!

Sunset: Maui

Sunrise: Maui
Sunset: Frederick, Maryland
Sunset: Virginia Beach, Virginia
Sunset: Key Largo, Florida

Sunday, May 5, 2013

More than one way to write a query or castrate a dog

This has been a roller coaster week - two half marathons in a row have kept me physically stressed and I've been busy at work refreshing my memory on cattle reproductive hormones (prostaglandins in particular, like good ol' prostaglandin E2, which means a review of the cyclooxygenase 2 pathway and all that good stuff).  However, I've tried to remain diligent with my writing and soon I'll have a few more queries to send out to magazines.

If you look up "how to write a query letter" you'll find an almost overwhelming amount of advice online which is simultaneously great and aggravating.  Yes, there is the standard set-up of a query letter: the "hook", the synopsis, and your biography, but just how you craft your hook can be done about a million ways.

I don't know about you, but although options are sometimes nice (like ice cream), for other things such as query writing and learning to drive a manual transmission, I want to be told ONE WAY to do it for starters.


Some aspects of veterinary medicine are like this too.  Take castrations.  Junior year of vet school is when you begin to learn the art of surgery.  You start with the basics, which is the feline neuter.  Then you up the ante a little and progress to the canine neuter (interesting to note how different all the species are when it comes to testicles).  We would practice and refresh our anatomy on cadavers with the surgeons hovering around in the background trying to offer helpful tips.  I remember one particularly easy-going small animal surgeon (I know, I know: What? An easy-going small animal surgeon!? That's crazy talk!) offering tips when castrating a dog: you can do the "closed" technique or "open."  You can use two clamps or three.  You can use this suture and these knots, or this one over here.  You can close the skin with this suture pattern or that.  "Which one would you prefer?" he asked us in the anatomy lab, referring to which combination of methods to use during this surgery, almost like employing artistic license.

It was too much for me.  "How are we supposed to know?" I asked.  Asking which way I prefer when I've never actually done it was so weird and annoying to me, I was getting aggravated, not to mention confused.  What is the tunica albuginia again? Which is the Kelly hemostat?  Perhaps the formalin fumes were getting to me.  "Just show me ONE WAY to do it for now," I said.  "Once I get comfortable with that, then I can try other methods."

The day of the actual neuter on the actual (living) dog went fine.  Things were clamped, things were removed, and the dog woke up afterwards.  Now of course I forgot the way I chose to do it.  Also, I'll admit I don't neuter every dog the same way - different situations call for different methods.  I suppose it's sort of the same thing with a query letter. 

Now that I have lots of dog neuters and query letters under my belt, I'm not as stressed or annoyed when someone suggests something new.  I can nod my head and think: yes, I've thought about placing that ligature there.  Or: yes, I've wondered about including that piece of information here.  Having more than one option helps keep you flexible and even helps you be more creative (that creativity part only applies to queries - probably not a good idea to get too creative when castrating something....)

Now to explore my options in the ice cream department...