Monday, December 7, 2015

Online Chronicles of a Vet Student

Recently on Twitter, I became a fan of a delightfully active, witty, and bright vet student, Shannon Finn. Attending Ontario Veterinary College, Shannon somehow finds time to craft insightful blog posts, interesting Tweets, and very clever Vines. All told, I'm a bit jealous of her craftiness at the whole online presence; this young woman is GOOD. She gets it. So I contacted her last month to ask her some questions. And here's what she taught me. Maybe you can learn something, too.

Currently in her sophomore year at OVC, Shannon comes from a small town in Ontario, Canada, about an hour and a half outside of Toronto. She says so far she is really enjoying vet school and 2nd year has her excited about theriogenology and how should I say it gently... a bit less enthusiastic about radiology. In Shannon's own words, "Reading abnormal radiographs is a lot tougher than it seems!" Preach it, sister.
Shannon Finn
Shannon primarily uses Twitter and Vine as her main online modalities, and she blogs as well. Her recent blog, "The value of your veterinary dollar: a vet student perspective" has gained a lot of attention and is well deserved. Shannon uses data combined with real life examples to paint a stark picture of the economics of the current veterinary profession. "I like Twitter because it's so quick and simple to connect with people," says Shannon. "You can add pictures and links and have conversations and ask questions and even Tweet right at someone you admire. It's just SO easy to interact, which is what I love. Vine is also a lot of fun - you only have six seconds for a video so you have to be creative. Six seconds involves a lot more planning than you'd think! I think it's a quick way to show something neat, like blood smearing or suturing or a time lapse of all your notes. I feel like having these quick social media snippets (six second videos and 140 character Tweets) is a good complement to the longer story telling that I get to do on my blog."

Shannon says she uses her social media platforms for education and entertainment. "I think the more the public knows about what we learn and what vet school is like, the more trust you can build in that relationship," she says. "People are always interested in animals and how you become an animal doctor, so why not make it accessible to them? I remember being an eager little pre-vet in undergrad and I would have killed for a good Twitter account or vet school blog."

"People are interested in animals and how you become an animal doctor, so why not make it accessible to them?"

Now that Shannon is providing that service for current pre-vets and others who would like to know exactly what goes on in the anatomy lab or the hospital, she also offers advice on what not to share. "I think that you always have to be careful and aware of what you put on the internet, especially with a medical setting where you have client-patient-relationships," she says. "Confidentiality and over-sharing can be a pitfall, but once you become familiar with what's acceptable and what's not, it becomes common sense to realize what's OK to post and what not to. Another thing is to use social media as a venting space. It's just so easy to throw negativity out there when you have a rough day. I really try and stay away from that and make it a more positive space. I mean, snark is so instantly gratifying but I think it just looks bad in hind sight. The internet is filled with negativity, so why add to it?"

"The internet is filled with negativity, so why add to it?"

Shannon has a history of being an avid reader (she admits to blowing away the competition in a reading contest at her childhood library) and cites other veterinarians as authors that inspire her. Dr. Sarah Boston makes Shannon's list (remember we talked to Sarah a while back?) as does Dr. Elizabeth Stone, the co-founder of the Society of Veterinary Medicine and Literature, and another VetWrite interviewee alumni. "I basically admire anyone in our field who takes the time to write and share their thoughts and passions for our wonderful career with others," Shannon says. "It's sometimes nice to have a break from being so science-oriented and appreciate the more poetic aspects of what we do."

For some folks, the concept of building an online presence, or a platform if you will, can seem overwhelming. For example, consider your choices: blogging, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, Snapchat, LinkedIn... I'm getting sweaty just thinking of all the different modalities. Shannon offers some sage advice for those who are interested in getting their foot in the internet door. "I think for most people, you start with what you're familiar with and what you enjoy," she says. "Think about if you like information sharing, picture sharing, or story telling. I don't think you can go wrong with picking a modality as long as you take the time to learn about how to use it, what appropriate use is in your job, and who your audience is. I would say the ultimate piece of advice is that you get out of it what you put into it. If you spend time formulating good Tweets, coming up with good blog ideas, and interacting with others, you will find it more rewarding for sure. It's definitely not a passive process."

Looking into the future, Shannon is interested in OneHealth. "I really like the concept of solving important problems at more of a population level," she says. She remains open to the vast opportunities that are available for today's veterinarian. But for now, there's one thing Shannon sees as a definite no-go: "Definitely not to be a radiologist!"
See you next month!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Capturing many a veterinary legacy

This fall I had the opportunity to speak with an impressive member of the veterinary community--Dr. Don Smith--and I'm very excited to share with you one of his many projects. Don, large animal surgeon, dean emeritus of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, author, and veterinary history enthusiast, is the creator of a fascinating collection of interviews of veterinarians who attended vet school during some of the most challenging times of modern US history, most notably the Great Depression. These interviews, both in written form and available as audio files, are available on Cornell's website. The collection is called Enduring Legacy. Here's what Don had to say about how this project came to be, his interview process, and what he's learned from talking to some amazing veterinarians.

Despite modest ambitions of wanting to be a dairy practitioner, Don wound up a large animal surgeon. Then, after following the winding road of professionalism, Don eventually held a deanship at Cornell from 1997 to 2007. After this, Don found himself at a crossroads.

"I was too young to retire but didn't want to continue with administration," he says. "I didn't know what to do so I packed my dog into a Jeep and I went to Alaska along the back roads. I used that time to decide what I didn't want to do as well as to some extent what I did want to do."
Beau, Don's Cocker Spaniel who accompanied him to Alaska and back.
Don had been introduced to the concept of helping record the history of individuals who were veterinarians in the early part of the 21st century. The element of time passing--these individuals were not going to be around within the next 20 years--was palpable and when Don returned from his trip in Alaska, "I decided to meet and record these life stories of as many veterinarians who were educated in the 1930s as possible," he says. "So, I traveled around the country and interviewed them. I did Cornell graduates first, and then I was encouraged to interview younger people who had graduated in the 1940s, and then interview some from other schools as well."
Dr. Andre Moul Ross, the only female member of the Cornell veterinary class of 1943.
Don has conducted hundreds of interviews, not just for the Enduring Legacy project, but also for other books and blogs. I was curious to learn about Don's interview technique and perhaps gain a few hints for myself.

Primarily, Don states an axiom that should be remembered by anyone who ever conducts any interview, for whatever reason (this can even apply to vets getting a decent case history on a patient!): "When you interview somebody, you're hearing a bias. You're hearing the way they remember, or more specifically, how they want their history to be remembered on their behalf. They will tell you things they want you to know and in the process, perhaps, they don't tell you certain things or there are certain errors. Therefore, you have to get at the facts. In order to interview someone, you have to do research."

"When you interview somebody, you're hearing a bias."

Don describes his process of triangulating a story: hearing something during an interview then corroborating those statements with interviews from other sources and facts collected elsewhere. Another concept Don used to make his Enduring Legacy interviews stand out as unique collections of veterinary history is who he talked to. "Most people, when they want to know about the history of veterinary medicine, they go to the faculty and ask them what it was like to be a faculty member," he says. "I didn't want to do that. I wanted to find out about the real people in the real world under real circumstances. I wanted to explore their history."

As far as interview techniques, Don cuts to the chase: "Don't ask the obvious questions." Don likens a good interview to allowing the interviewee to demonstrate leadership. "You have to create instability and let leadership come through. People are great leaders but they too often will not find leadership unless they are put in an unstable situation and they have to demonstrate how to move society forward. So I try to use that same context within my interview style."

"Don't ask the obvious questions. Create instability and let leadership come through."

I asked Don what his most memorable interviews were during his time putting together Enduring Legacy. Without hesitation, Don stated that the class of 1939 at Cornell was probably the most extraordinary class to have gone through veterinary college anywhere. "The reasons for this were because of the diversity in the class and the challenges of the Depression," he says. "The challenges of that era were just extraordinary but it allowed the students to become friends, not just colleagues, with people who were very different."

Don describes this class as one containing "three women, a Chinese man, a Canadian who didn't know how old he was, an African American from Memphis, some Catholics who were discriminated against back then, and some Jewish people."

The relationships and bonds formed in this vet school class have left a huge impression on Don. "A Jewish man from Brooklyn and a Catholic man from southern New York became the very best of friends," he says. "Never once during these interviews did I ever hear anyone say anything negative about anyone."

Take some time to explore the interviews captured over at Enduring Legacy--the audio files are so rich with memory and emotion you'll easily find yourself rooting for those who, at immense odds, fulfilled their professional ambitions.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Creative Cartooning

It's been a while since we talked to a cartoonist. Remember Dr. Dean Scott? What a hoot. Us veterinarians need to cartoon more. That should probably be a decree from AVMA. I'll write to them. Make a proposal.

Luckily, there is at least one relatively new vet cartoonist in the ranks and I'm thrilled to feature him and his awesome work here on VetWrite. Dear readers, meet Dr. Vishal Murthy, a recent graduate from Ontario Veterinary College. As an artist in the veterinary field, Vishal is using his knowledge and talents to create educational and entertaining media that ranges from study aids for the veterinary student to actual comics about daily life in vet med.
Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM
"I've been drawing cartoons ever since I could pick up a pencil," says Vishal of his beginnings in this art form. "Some of my biggest influences have been the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, the Bone series, and of course, the Disney cartoons. But it was only a couple of years ago that I really realized that I could combine my passion for cartoons with veterinary medicine and I'm still exploring all the avenues before me. I tend to draw a lot of my ideas from my own experiences in practice, or those that my colleagues share with me."
Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM

With an interest in small animal neurology, Vishal is currently on a rotating internship. While this leaves little time for cartooning, Vishal continues to plunge ahead and build his brand. He currently categorizes his work into three main groups:
  • "Vet Tails" are comics highlighting the lighter side of the veterinary profession (he's been invited to contribute some of these to The Scalpel, the bi-annual newsletter of the Toronto Academy of Veterinary Medicine); 
  • Cartoon Vet School: comics geared toward vet students (think illustrated fun times with infographics and scientific wordy-gurdy); and 
  • Veterinary Infographics: comics aimed at the general public, providing basic information on a range of diseases.
Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM. For full cartoon on heart block, see

"I've got some big plans for my website that I'm slowly working towards," says Vishal. "I'm interested in both education and entertainment."

It's interesting to me to notice how a certain artist has a certain style and Vishal's work is certainly very stylistic. "My art style is constantly evolving, so its hard to describe," he says. "I tend to stay away from realism and make things quite cartoony. I find that I often tend to adjust the style to match the content - something you'll sometimes see on my website. For most of my comics, I try to keep a focus on strong silhouettes and shapes with simple lines, expressive features, and building character. Simplicity is key these days, especially given my time constraints."

Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM
Contextually, Vishal's work reminds me of Pasquini's Anatomy of Domestic Animals. Almost every member of my vet school class, including myself, had a copy. The drawings and cartoons helped me learn anatomy and physiology. In fact, there is one drawing, on page 565 of the tenth edition, that made me finally understand how to locate spinal cord lesions based on upper motor neuron versus lower motor neuron signs:

from Pasquini's Anatomy of Domestic Animals, 10th ed.
Seeing this drawing was my one and only eureka moment of my life. Too bad it hadn't happened before the exam... 

Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM
Vishal says that since many people are visual learners, cartoons can just be an extension of that learning process. "Along with all the handwritten notes I made to get me through school, I drew out a lot of the concepts, made flowcharts and more. Cartoons can help serve the same end. Often a fun cartoon can make a dull or complex concept more relatable, memorable, and allows for better understanding," he says.

Courtesy Vishal Murthy, DVM
Drawing to educate veterinary students may be one thing, but illustrating complex biological processes for the lay public is an entirely different challenge and Vishal seems keen to build this bridge. "We have a lot of complex concepts and diseases to present to an audience that often doesn't have the background to fully understand them. I think visual aids, and comics in particular, are great in helping bridge that gap to both educate and entertain."

Vishal discusses OneHealth and collaboration with other medical professionals as being some key challenges that veterinary medicine faces over the next few years, but in his own way, he's already making an impact on that: user-friendly information for all.

"Its an exciting time to be a veterinarian - there's much to be done, and lots of us ready to meet the challenges that arise," Vishal says. His ambition and enthusiasm are contagious. Follow Vishal on Twitter: @vetcartoonist and @VishalMurthyDVM.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Healing with Poetry

I'll depart from my normal routine this month, if you'll allow. I've wanted to share some thoughts on my favorite poet Mary Oliver for some time and, although not a vet or in any way associated with the veterinary or agriculture industry, Mary writes about nature and animals in such a wonderful, thoughtful way that I think she deserves a shout out here. My introduction to Mary's work was through a delightful, small work of poems called Dog Songs. If you in any way love dogs, buy it now and cherish it. It is lovely.

It this collection, Mary celebrates many of the dogs with whom she's shared her life and offers such wisdom as:

"Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble.
A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog
is also a hedonist."

Mary Oliver


"Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him."

Mary Oliver


"And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old--or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give."

This last passage reminds me that I'm to send a copy of Dog Songs to my mom, because her yellow Lab, Phoenix, of 14 years, died this week. I think the words above speak to our gut-wrenching loss of those pups we couldn't save (in the end, isn't it all of them?) no matter what. My own black Lab, Shadow, died of heart failure two years ago and I've said if not for species differences, I would have donated my own heart.

And oh, how easy it is to slip into sentimentality when we talk about lost pets. I'm teetering on that edge right now. The Rainbow Bridge and all that. One can jump overboard. Of course, that's not the intent of this entry. Instead, this is meant as an illustration of how poetry helps and heals (and poetry about animals, especially!).

But, if your heart is heavy because you've lost a pet, here are some comforts:

Other collections by Mary are just as enchanting. In Blue Iris, for example, one poem expresses how the morning sunlight touches flowers with "buttery fingers." Yeah, that's what I'm talking about, people. The beauty of language. Whew boy. *mops brow*

As of yet, Mary doesn't have a collection about cats. I'd like to ask her about that.

Until next time.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Culture of a Monthly Column

Regular readers of the veterinary industry magazine DVM360 may recognize this name: Dr. Michael Obenski. For those of you who don't, Mike, a retired feline practitioner in Pennsylvania, was a columnist for the magazine for 37 years. 37 years. 37 years. 

Holy cow.

You understand, I just had to talk to this man. Here's what he had to say about life, vet med, and writing to a monthly deadline for over three decades.
Michael Obenski, DVM
"I was in a small animal practice in 1972," Mike says. "It was my first job out of school. A very nice job. I stayed there for six years. Around 1974, it was decided in the practice that it would be a good idea to have all the veterinarians go take the Dale Carnegie course, How to Win Friends and Influence People. This course is largely public speaking and as part of the course, you are called upon to tell the group something about your life. So, I found immediately that when I got up to tell a story, it was phenomenally received. It was fun. So having seen that I could tell stories and people loved them, that got me to try writing."

Mike wrote a few columns and sent them off. Initially, magazines weren't biting, but Mike caught the interest of a brand new veterinary publication, the now-known DVM360. "This magazine was just in its first year and trying to build itself, so I decided to give it a try," he says. "And that's it. I continued with them for 37 years."

Having retired from writing late last year, Mike has hundreds of columns to his name. Hundreds. I asked him where all his content came from and how he stayed fresh. "The thing is that when you practice veterinary medicine every day, I mean, come on," he says. "Strange stuff happens so consistently. And when it didn't, veterinarians from all over the world would occasionally send me some story or unusual thing that happened to them. You might notice that I was a cat specialist exclusively from 1978 on and yet I wrote stories about horses and cows and dogs because not every incidence necessarily happened to me."

"The thing is that when you practice veterinary medicine, strange stuff happens so consistently."

As we've read about in this blog before, both veterinarians and physicians have a tight rope to walk in memoirs when it comes to patient confidentiality. Mike had a fantastic tool in his writing when it came to tackling sticky issues. "In my columns, I have a "friend" whose name is Arnie and he practices down the road," Mike explains. "Well, Arnie of course doesn't exist. If something was a little controversial or a statement was going to be taken wrongly by somebody, I often attributed it to Arnie."


Mike continues. "Arnie's existence has been questionable over the years. I've had veterinarians from other states ask me exactly who is Arnie, really? There was a vet in Florida who wrote me a letter describing exactly who Arnie was. He quoted Pogo and said: 'We've met the Arnie and it is us.' Anyway, Arnie was supposed to be the well-established, big hospital veterinarian and he was a reflection of many of my friends but he wasn't a real person."

Another method Mike used for protecting privacy actually added to the entertainment value of his columns without belittling the character in a personal way. "One of the things my writing became known for, if you could call it known--I don't want to act like I'm a household word or anything--was the use of names. I made up hundreds of names over the years. I always used what I called medically humorous names. My cantankerous colleague was called A. Brasive, my large animal colleague was called Juan Armup. I never used names like Bill Jones or Mary Smith."

Perhaps the strongest feature of Mike's columns was his sense of humor. "Everything I've written was light," he says. And then an interesting comment on the state of people nowadays reveals itself: "People have become so much more serious. I think a lot of people have lost their sense of humor. Once in a blue moon I'd hear from someone who would be very upset and say that I was mocking my clients or I'm biting the hand that feeds me. And that was usually one person who read one column and took it the wrong way. Anyone who read my columns for years knows that I mocked my colleagues, I mocked the clients, I mocked myself, I mocked the technicians. You weren't immune."

"I mocked my colleagues, I mocked the clients, I mocked myself, I mocked the technicians."

Speaking of now versus the 1970s, Mike and I discuss the changes seen in veterinary medicine over the past few decades and the emergence of the specialty doctor. "If you come to me with a broken leg, I'll fix it," Mike says. "Does your cat have an endocrine disease? I'll fix it. But now, I have to tell every single client: well, you know, I could send you to an orthopedic surgeon or endocrinologist. When I was a kid, if you broke your leg, your family doctor set it. Now, if you tweak your pinkie, you're sent to an orthopedic surgeon. Veterinary medicine has become the same way."

"I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole freakin' life."

Mike has had two books published, both compilations of his columns in DVM360. With his extensive column experience and two books under his belt, however, he still strongly puts vet med first and foremost. "I did enjoy the writing but never ever ever did I look at myself as a writer or someone who wants to be a writer. My entire life I wanted to be a veterinarian and that's what I was. I wanted to treat animals every day and what's what I did. The book thing and the column thing were totally off to the side. I don't look at myself as a writer. I don't think: oooh, now that I'm retired I'm going to work on a screenplay. No. I wanted to be a veterinarian my whole freakin' life and I practiced every day."

"I did enjoy writing but never ever ever did I look at myself as a writer."

Admittedly, this black and white cut off of writer/non-writer struck me. How can you write regularly for 37 years and then just turn it off? Retired now also from practice, Mike says he's moved on. "I'm just living out my golden years happy as a clam," he says. "Works for me."

Monday, August 10, 2015

Believable Blogging

A few weeks ago I had the chance to chat with Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, veterinarian and social media maven, commonly known as Dr. V. Some of you may be familiar with Jessica's popular blog, Pawcurious, or her numerous other writing activities, such as blogger over at petMD and frequent contributor to DVM360, not to mention other national publications and media appearances. Most recently, this summer Jessica's first book came out--All Dogs Go to Kevin--a veterinary memoir. Jessica and I talked about writing for the masses via social media and she offered plenty of sage advice. Let me share that with you.
Jessica graduated from UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. Having always enjoyed writing, Jessica turned her hobby into something more substantial as blogging gained a foothold. "I've been writing forever," she says. "I had never envisioned it actually being an effective way to educate large groups of people, it was just sort of me writing to friends who were interested in hearing what life was like as a vet." As technology became more on-line friendly, and with some help and encouragement from her husband who has IT experience, Jessica discovered blogging was a perfect fit as a writing outlet.

"The idea of using social media to educate people on a larger scale really became more front and center," Jessica says. "One of the things that is challenging for professional people on social media is that you really need to engage people on a personal level and that's really hard for a lot of people who want to write things very informational and very impersonal. That's not really what people are looking for. So, blogging has been an exercise in trying to strike that balance: to give accurate, professional information while still being relatable. That's what I've been trying to do."

A reader of Pawcurious will quickly notice Jessica's writing voice. Although veterinary in nature, Jessica weaves in her own life experiences between the science. Her's is not the "Ten Tips to Treat Fleas" site. Instead, Jessica shares her life as a vet, a mother, and an individual with her audience. "Everything I wanted to say medically I did in the first year," she says of her blog, which started in 2009. "Vaccines, nutrition, everything. Now I like writing about what I do in the voice that I have. I write about things going on in my own life and own work. If I can't tie it back to something that's going on in my life or in the news, then it's not as interesting to me. There are only so many times you can write about core vaccines." TRUTH.

"There are only so many times you can write about core vaccines." 

Blogging about how you vacuum your carpets is one thing, but blogging about vet med for general public education is an entirely different monster. Jessica knows this first hand and discusses what she views as the pros and cons of social media for those in the vet biz. "The pro of social media is that everyone has a voice," she says. "The con is the same thing. It is good and bad. Social media is a great way to talk to people that you would have never come across, but on the same token, you have people who are really good at establishing a personal relationship but they don't necessarily use that to share appropriate information. Someone can have a million fans and spout stuff that makes zero sense. It is frustrating when you see somebody selling snake oil and undoing all the good work you've been doing for so many years just because he or she as a good graphic designer."

So, the book. Jessica describes her memoir process as backwards because she was approached by a publisher who asked if she would write a book. Of course she said yes (duh), so then she acquired an agent and only then did they decide what the book was going to be about. Crazy, right? Normally, the book process goes: write, submit, rejection, rejection, rejection, (x 104392), then agent and then publisher. (But, my dear readers and writers: NEVER GIVE UP.)

Jessica admits her version of the writing game is unique. "Traditional publishing is so much work," she acknowledges. "If I had to do it the traditional way, I don't think I would have the tenacity to keep going. These novelists are incredible, given the rate of rejection they receive. I was fortunate that I had a lot of guidance and I knew that at the end of the day this was going to be a published book."

OK, so now that we are all incredibly jealous of Jessica's backwards path to publication, what is her book about? "The book is a memoir about three dogs that I had at three interesting points in my life," she says. "My Lhasa I had as a child, the Golden Retriever I had as a graduate student, and the crazy Lab I had as I got older. It features personal stories and stories from the vet clinic. I wanted to share the wonder of what these little guys bring to our lives and how they have this purpose that we may not even recognize until they are gone."

"I wanted to share the wonder of what these little guys bring to our lives."

The memoir writing process has always been a source of fascination to me. How can a writer dig deep enough to make the language compelling? Is there a chance of digging too deeply? Is it a fine line? "It was an emotional process because when you are writing a memoir, you are really trying to revisit those moments and find the words to describe the emotions you are going through," says Jessica. "I write about the deaths of my own pets in detail and it was hard. I spent some times at one in the morning typing and crying. It does take a lot out of you. But you have to be willing to go there if you want your writing to affect people. If you write detached then the reader will be detached as well."

"If you write detached then the reader will be detached."

Naturally, the conversation turns to time. Where is it? Can you buy more of it? Is there a vending machine that dispenses half hour chunks for a few quarters or part of your soul? For those particularly in the veterinary field, finding time to write or do another hobby or even brush your teeth on a regular basis is sometimes a challenge. These "other" things are part of what is called self-care and there is a lack of it in the vet med world. This is a problem.

"I think we are conditioned to feel guilty either by colleagues or by clients to want to take time for ourselves," says Jessica. "That's crazy to me. We get it more than any other profession out there. I don't understand why that is. Why do people feel perfectly free to demand ownership over our lives, over this professional decision we made, and think they have the right to tell us that we should sacrifice everything? This has to be something that is discussed by the profession as a whole. Self-care has to be obligatory in this type of profession if you want to maintain your sanity."

This concept of self-care and its deprivation in the vet med realm is something that social media has helped moved to the forefront. "When we had several high profile suicides in the last couple of years and everybody was shocked and started talking, it was like: oh, me too," says Jessica. "It was like every single person was going through the same thing. [Sharing] has really opened the dialogue. That's just as important as the self-care itself: having that ability to speak with other colleagues who validate those feelings."

Jessica and I ended our conversation with some words of wisdom to impart on those intrepid would-be bloggers. "First thing, anonymity is a lie," she says. "Do not think you can post anonymously online. You have to be careful. The other thing is be aware. Of course you want to educate and enlighten people but people will take what you say to justify what they already believe, for good or bad. You can control what you write but you can't control what people do with it once it's out there."

"Anonymity is a lie."

At the end of it all, whether you're looking to create your own blog, or post pictures of your amazing Pug or Persian or Palomino on Instagram, or write the most amazing, fascinating, refreshing articles on core vaccines, just remember to do your best. And of course you will. "I'm going to write what I care about and create quality content and hopefully that will be enough," Jessica says. "I just want to be true to the things I think are important. And I think that's really the best anyone can do." Amen, sister.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Busy Bee

Update on scheduling!

Normally, blogs here on VetWrite come out on the first and third Monday of the month.  Which means, dear readers, you might be chomping at the bit this Sunday, Aug 2. Maybe foaming at the mouth in anticipation. Heart palpitations? Normal. Cold sweats? It's ok. I know. I'd be excited if I were you, too.


Due to summer travel during the first and third weeks of August--New Hampshire and Liverpool! Wheeeee!!!--posts will be on the second and fourth Mondays of August.

This has been your friendly VetWrite PSA.

Thank you.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bovine Bangles

Although we've visited with authors, sculptors, and painters on this blog, we have yet to infiltrate the creative mind of a jeweler. Dear readers, today is the day. Let's meet Dr. Kathy Swift, veterinarian, jewelry artist, and creator of Cow Art and More.

Dairy cow charm, by Kathy Swift, DVM
Cow Art and More is an online gallery where, as Kathy's website declares, "art and agriculture meet." Featuring a handful of artists who make by hand original and limited edition art centered around the agricultural community, Cow Art and More is a place Kathy has created to showcase her art and the art of others.

Kathy says that creating jewelry has always been a special love of hers. Growing up on a dairy farm in Virginia, Kathy's other love, cows, translated into a veterinary career in the dairy sector of Florida. In 2001, a chance meeting with a local jewelry artist reignited the artistic flame that was quieted by the hustle and bustle of veterinary practice. Soon, Kathy was taking classes at the University of Florida, Penland School of Crafts, and William Holland School of Lapidary Arts.

Barn charm, by Kathy Swift, DVM

Focusing on a line of contemporary silver jewelry, Kathy struggled with ways to bring her love of cows and agriculture into her art. "In the beginning, I didn't want to create farm-themed jewelry," she says. "I did that all day, I didn't want to do it as an art project as well. I finally had an inspiration of creating a realistic cow charm after the umpteenth time of looking at someone else's cow charm and thinking, 'That's not a cow. Those legs and udder are all wrong. I can do better than that!' "

Kathy still practices veterinary medicine, and splits her time between science and art. She notes it's hard to be creative as a veterinarian. "Being a veterinarian has given me a good analytic sense which has proven invaluable to my art side," she says. "I can't get creative with treating patients very often so I find that art is my way of expressing an inner imagination."

Jersey jug milk can charm, by Kathy Swift, DVM
Kathy admits it can be hard to balance her two professions. "I don't know that it's necessarily any different than any other work/life balance," she says, "but it does involve getting myself into a different mindset. The longer I do both, the more I find that it's hard to shift from one to the other all in the same day. It seems like I enjoy either better when I can do it for an extended period of time, say like an entire day, not just a few hours."

For those of you who may doubt the artistic wealth that is the kindly cow, please reconsider. "I love the artwork where the cow is just as I know her, including the subtle details like her ears and nose," says Kathy. "When you are with them for hours, you learn to love all their details."

Cowbell charm, by Kathy Swift, DVM

Kathy says her online business is growing steadily and she would like to see this continue over the next decade. "I have always joked that you will know I'm big time when you see me selling my jewelry on QVC!" she says.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Know Your Noir

When I think of noir fiction, my imagination turns black and white, with smokey overtones, cigarettes, booze, and of course murder mixing in a bowl of dry wit.

But that's being stereotypical.

I actually didn't know I was a noir fan until I flipped through the book Film Noir: 100 All-Time Favorites and gasped: Heat, Pulp Fiction, The Dark Knight... these were noir? My favorite movies? Granted, these are film and not books, but there's so much more to noir than just a cigarette and angst-y detective work. This is more than the Guy Noir skits of Prairie Home Companion. Noir, as author and veterinarian T.D. Hart says is, really, life.

T.D. Hart, a pen name for Dr. Jennifer (Mathews) Adolph, now writes noir fiction after selling her equine veterinary practice. On her website, Jennifer lays it out: "Noir characters fuck up, then fix it. Life goes wrong, then works out. And oh man, do they ever carry baggage...And yet... Noir protagonists survive, then win. Despite the deep, crawling ugliness of the crime, they find humor and beauty and honor in their fellows. Like sailors who survive a crippling hurricane, they know they will face other storms. And they damned sure enjoy the sunshine."

Let's meet Jennifer in a bit greater detail. She seems interesting.

"I was the kid with her nose in a book," Jennifer says. "A hopeless geek who loved horses more than breathing. As a young adult I turned that passion into a profession, working on breeding farms in Norman, OK." During this time, Jennifer worked with some of the elite Thoroughbred mares in the country. A veterinarian she knew encouraged Jennifer to return to college and apply to vet school. "You are better than you think," he told her.

Jennifer took the sage advice and graduated from Oklahoma State's vet school in 1997. "I started my equine ambulatory practice in Tulsa and worked for thirteen years as a solo practitioner," she says. "Along the way I got married, had three children, and built a haul-in facility for the business."

Busy bee. Enter, stage left: WRITING.

"The creative bug hit around 2008," Jennifer says. "Oddly it started with guitar lessons. Within months, I was writing--almost as though a dam had broken and my creative waters were again flowing. And things have never been the same."

During this period of creative re-discovery, Jennifer was still practicing veterinary medicine. Here, then, came the struggle we've explored before on this blog: how to balance practice with creative expression?

"I LOVED being an equine veterinarian," Jennifer stresses. "My clients and patients felt like family to me and I loved being able to ride in and save the day. But I didn't love not knowing whether I'd get to finish my dinner, take a quiet bath, or watch a movie with my family without being called out on an emergency."

A simple case of burnout, Jennifer diagnoses. We know the feeling, right? Empathy abounds. "In the end, I found myself having to work and getting to write, which seemed backward," she says.

So backward, in fact, that Jennifer decided to sell her practice. "Selling my practice is the scariest thing I've ever done... and also the thing I'm most proud of," she says. "I miss my clients and the sense of accomplishment at the end of a long, physically challenging day. I miss the foals and the high-fives at getting mares pregnant, the sense of wonder at transforming a gaping wound into a row of neat sutures. I miss being the hero." Realistically, Jennifer says she also, at the moment, misses the paycheck. But, the writing life is full of new, different rewards. "I get up every morning knowing I get to create a story out of thin air," she says. "And that's the most exciting, most fulfilling job I've ever had."

"I get up every morning knowing I get to create a story out of thin air."

Now a full-time writer, Jennifer hones her noir craft in a recently converted garden shed. She is polishing the final draft of her debut novel about a San Diego homicide detective who investigates the death of a rock star, discovering he had secrets worth killing for. Her character-driven stories capture deeply flawed protagonists. "The inspiration for my debut was seeing the furor over Michael Jackson's death and wondering how it would be to investigate the suicide of a star and discover he was quite different from his public persona," Jennifer says.

Early success has helped Jennifer's travels down the lonely road of writerdom. "My first [writing] award was the CNW/FFWA award for Best Novel Chapter and when I logged on and saw my name at the top, I screamed so loud my family thought I was being butchered!" she says. "Since then I've won the OWFI best mainstream novel and best mystery category and been a finalist in the Colorado Gold."

However, the reality of the tortoise-paced publishing world has taught Jennifer some lessons in patience and revision. "When my current manuscript won some contests back in 2012, I was sure I'd made it," she says. "Three years and umpteen revisions later, I've come to see the journey as a long, beautiful marathon through gorgeous scenery. If I'm tired, I rest. If I want to stop writing and go for a trail run, I do. Then I come back and finish my work. Honoring my craft as worthwhile work keeps me focused."

Jennifer thinks of her daily writing as exercise. "I've learned that writing is a muscle," she says. "Use the muscle, it gets stronger. Too much rest and it atrophies. So I write every day. I need time and quiet to really hear my characters. For the last several years I've escaped for intensive writing retreats. When I'm drafting, I shoot for 1,200 words a day. When I'm editing, I go as fast and far as I can."

"Honing my craft as worthwhile work keeps me focused."

Jennifer says over the years she's learned to relax into her writing and trust the creative process. She has an agent and a hopeful publication date for her debut novel in 2017. I'll certainly be watching for it.

"Writers are a welcoming bunch," Jennifer concludes. I concur and include myself in that group of open arms. *FREE HUGS FOR WRITERS!* "We're all learning and we're always willing to help other writers. The generosity is amazing. For me, it was a fantastic choice."

Recent update from Jennifer... As she continues to build her writing platform, she is now offering developmental editing to help new and aspiring writers get their manuscripts in shape for publication. If in need/interested in this service, please contact Jennifer via email at: jenniferadolph@ymailDOTcom. 


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Liar Liar

Well, it happened. I missed my deadline. I promised you a new post on Monday. That was three days ago. No post.






I.... I was on vacation.

So, in the mean time, enjoy these pictures while I type my fingers off.

Lupines at Lake Tahoe

Half Dome at Yosemite National Park

Sequoias at Sequoia National Park

Monday, June 15, 2015

From Flesh and Blood to Folded Steel

Veterinarians work with their hands. We palpate, we pet, we suture, we cut, we bandage. Some of us use hands for more than clinical efforts in the hospital; painting and drawing are some recent examples here on VetWrite. But what about bringing art into the third dimension? Let's hear from Dr. Patricia Frederick, equine veterinarian and sculptor.
Dr. Pat Frederick
Originally from Arizona, Pat grew up with a fierce love of horses. With no horse of her own, Pat had the good fortune to have a friend with a horse that needed exercising in the summer. Soon enough, this led to a job at a dude ranch, all at the age of 11. "Imagine a child of that age guiding ranch guests out on trails," says Pat. "Holy cow!"

Naturally, Pat chose to pursue an education in veterinary medicine with a focus on horses. "I was part of a five member surgery team in veterinary school," Pat recalls. "We were given a unique class while the small animal surgeries were filled with the other 44 students. Of course, we did small animal surgery, too. We had to argue to get the horse experience." Pat graduated from Washington State University's vet school in 1966.

"Amigos", by Pat Frederick, DVM
Although Pat did some drawing during her childhood, she admits most of her spare time was spent on horseback. However, once Pat had young children of her own, she started working with clay. "I did clay for several years," she says. When her family moved to Australia in 1984 due to a job opportunity for her husband, Pat took a ceramics course and then pursued an associate degree in painting.

"When we returned to Arizona [in 1991], I had ceramic sculptures which were fragile. I was fortunate to get private tutoring for bronze sculpture. As I learned how much welding the bronzes required, after casting, I took a welding class and was hooked. Steel was not only more available but cheaper and I thought easier to sell."

Pat stopped practicing when she turned 63. It was then that she was able to devote herself completely to her art. Prior to this switch, Pat held certifications in chiropractic medicine, holistic veterinary medicine, and acupuncture. "I have always wanted to 'do art' since high school," Pat says. "I liked biology, too, and science in general, but the art 'thing' was what I tried to make time for as our children grew."

However, it was only after veterinary retirement that Pat was able to immerse herself in her art. "I knew that as I aged I could someday misjudge a horse and get hurt, so I decided to quit veterinary work and start a new job. There is a pretty high learning curve in Art Business which I study seriously. I have shown in many galleries, attended workshops, teach, and generally practice, practice, practice."

"Practice, practice, practice."

Pat's lifelong love of horses is evident in her steel pieces, as a vast majority of her sculptures are of the equine species. Pat's appreciation for horses, however, goes much further than the skin deep beauty of the creature. "Whenever anyone gets on a horse they are immediately on top of the world," Pat says. "Not only are we above the rest of the humans but we are also imbued with a heroic feeling and have an energy under us which is thrilling and useful."
"Tango", by Pat Frederick, DVM
This concept of Horses Make Heroes has heavily influenced many of Pat's pieces. "Of course, no one has to be on top of the horse to feel the hero as brushing, cleaning feet, and feeling a soft hot breath on your neck is as magical as any time can be," she says. "As a veterinarian, this feeling continued when I went into my unique fields with sport horses because after a chiropractic and acupuncture treatment, most horses actually step forward and say thank you with closeness and breath and relaxation."
"Good Luck", by Pat Frederick, DVM
Now with well over 100 pieces to her name and projects gracing numerous galleries in Arizona as well as Australia and Tasmania, Pat estimates she completes about six pieces a year. This of course is highly dependent on their size. The largest project Pat has completed is called "Carousel of Life," a piece with five horses that took her almost a year. The entire piece is fifteen feet in diameter and consists of glass, steel, aluminum, copper, silver, bronze, cement, and wood.

"The time involved encompasses the drawings and research," Pat explains. "A couple of months of three to six hour days and four to five days per week." A step by step process, Pat likens sculpting to drawing, but with steel, not graphite.

Another example of a deep rooted message within Pat's work is a series she calls "Hippophagy." A result of Pat's desire to comment on the debate of horse slaughter and eating horse meat, these pieces are a way to evoke thought and self-reflection among horse owners and the choices they make that may or may not contribute to horse overpopulation. "People are so polarized by 'eating' horse and don't seem to realize why US horses end there," she says. "I felt I needed to call attention to the work in order to get it noticed." Next to the piece as a whole, Pat places a long dialog, called "Menu."

"Menu", by Pat Frederick, DVM
"Dining Out", by Pat Frederick, DVM
"I feel that the horses that are sent to slaughter if done humanely in both travel and killing are getting a better end than they might have done when the recession hit," she continues. "We breed too many dogs, cats, and horses in many countries and then they suffer sad lives and a hard end of life. I guess my bottom line is: if there are so many horses being shipped to slaughter for meat, whose fault is it?"
"Friends Dying", by Pat Frederick, DVM
Like other artists who have been featured on here on VetWrite, Pat emphasizes how her veterinary knowledge of anatomy is a basic building block for her art. "The essence of the animal is basically the energy they are putting into a movement with the correct anatomy," she says. After the primary correct structure is captured, Pat lets her creative side take over. "Once the posture and bones of the armature are in place, I stop being realistic. I have never wanted to capture a purely realistic look--just the essence--so that your own mind and eye fills in the spaces which you don't see without knowing it."

Pat draws inspiration for her pieces from her memory and things she has seen. For her piece "Corowa Sheila", Pat was driving through a town called Howlong, in New South Wales, Australia. "I saw a young girl lying on her horse, obviously waiting for a friend," she says. "The horse was appreciating the shade of a gum tree."
"Corowa Shelia" by Pat Frederick, DVM

In another piece called "Hope," Pat recalls a horse show she attended. "I was getting ready to show and saw a horse standing in a single wire 'stall,'" she says. "It was constructed with the little nylon posts which hold hot wire. He was a big, lanky Thoroughbred and the girl who left him there had put a bucket just out of reach. He was stretching with every sinew of his body to reach the bucket without stepping out of the enclosure."
"Hope" by Pat Frederick. DVM
"I have been very lucky to have such a supportive husband and sons who do whatever they can to encourage me," Pat says. When asked what advice she can offer to others aspiring to explore their creative outlets, she says this: "Just DO it. Try to make time for your hobby. There are so many different forms of artistic expression--the world is your oyster."

Stay tuned for July 6 for the next post.

Monday, June 1, 2015

As Luck Would Have It

Traveling through the internet as I do on a more-than-necessary basis, I came upon a little gem of an article from the Gainesville Sun about a veterinary oncology surgeon who also happened to be a cancer survivor and author. In her book which was just published last year, Dr. Sarah Boston, Associate Professor of Surgical Oncology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, lays out reality as she knows it:
  • about how, while living and working in Canada, she encountered a sluggish and apathetic medical system when trying to get her thyroid carcinoma diagnosed and treated; 
  • how the human medical field seems to pale in comparison to the compassion that is a hallmark of the veterinary field; 
  • and how her writing became an outlet for humor and a place of solace. 
Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved My Life captures this meaty goodness and tenderizes it into an interesting piece on the table of veterinary authors.  

Let's get to know Sarah a little better.

"This all started just over four years ago," Sarah says. "I was living in Canada at the time. I was getting ready for bed and putting lotion on my neck and I found a mass. I knew it wasn't there before because I'm a veterinarian and an oncologist and I touch things for a living. I just knew it was my thyroid. I don't want to say I panicked, but I just thought it would be like veterinary medicine and I would go to my doctor and he would get me to a specialist and I would have surgery in a week or two."

Quickly enough, Sarah found out this was not the way things were going to go at all.

"Things just ground to a halt," she continues. "Four doctors told me it probably wasn't cancer and that it had been there for a while and it was probably benign. Everything was so slow. I couldn't even get an ultrasound for a week and a half."

In the meantime, Sarah borrowed her husband's (a large animal veterinarian) ultrasound. The image she saw confirmed her fears. "It looked like a thyroid carcinoma in a dog and I've done that surgery hundreds of times. I follow my patients up with ultrasound, so I know what it looks like in dogs. I looked at my ultrasound and was like: OK, no."

Winding her way back and forth to specialists, Sarah entered a scary time. The mass was growing and she felt no one was listening to her. Finally, two and a half months passed between when Sarah found the mass and when she had surgery. "I couldn't help but compare what I would have done for my patients," she says. "They would have been in and out within a couple of days. I couldn't even get an ultrasound in that time when I had the same health problem."

During this process, Sarah began to do what a lot of people would do -- seek an outlet. Hers was writing. "I was just frustrated," she says. "I was writing these little essays. It was really about trying to make my situation funny--me trying to amuse myself. That was really the initial reason for me starting to write. It was cathartic."

Sometimes, writing begets writing (aren't we writers lucky enough to sometimes reach that point?) and Sarah soon found herself with 40,000ish words--way too much for a blog, way more than just a couple humorous essays.

--Writers, this is where Sarah's story gets surreal. Stick with me, here. Think the ultimate writerly dream of meeting someone on a chance encounter and ending with a book deal is the stuff of fantasies? Hold on to your hats.--

Sarah attended a gala at the Animal Cancer Center at the University of Guelph. Speaking at this fundraiser, Sarah decided to read a few of her essays, "So I could explain to the donors why animal cancer is important and how it relates to human cancer," she says. As the Fates would have it, Sarah was sitting next to Noah Richler, a well-known Canadian author. After her reading, "Noah pulled out a pad, got my information, and said he was going to put me in touch with the best publisher in the country," Sarah says. "And I was like: OK."

At this point, Sarah had had two thyroid surgeries and was undergoing radiation. Although she originally didn't expect anything to come of this serendipitous meeting, she soon received an email from Noah introducing Sarah to his wife, well-known in the publishing world. "Through that connection, I sent in a partial first draft. And then I had what I call my Sex in the City moment: I basically walked in and had a book deal within 15 minutes. I was completely stunned, not expecting that at all."

OK, OK. Calm down. See? These sorts of things CAN happen. The Writer's Fates are REAL.

Anyway, back to our subject. Fast forward to the finished product, a book that shares both Sarah's thyroid experience and the experiences of her own four-legged cancer patients. More than a memoir, Lucky Dog carries with it a few strong messages.

"The book has a really strong message of advocacy," Sarah says. "You need to be a really strong advocate for yourself, your dog, your family member who is having health issues. No one cares as much as you do about your health. The thing that scared me the most about my whole process was that multiple times I was told, sort of, to go home. We'll watch it. And I remember thinking that if I were a history professor or someone without this medical background, then, who knows."

A cancer scare or any death scare, really, can make one realize or appreciate on a grand scale how delicate, how short, how precious life really is. (Says Seneca: "Life is long if you know how to use it.") Sarah touches on her realization of this, too. "Thinking I have cancer, then having cancer, then being treated for cancer creates this feeling of living in the moment," she says. "I learn that from the patients I see. Just because my patients have cancer, they don't sit there and worry about it and think about how they're going to die. They are enjoying the moment and quality of life. I think anyone who has had cancer or a cancer scare, they come to the other side of that. They get to where dogs are. Even though you may have a relatively long life, it's not really that much time so make sure you're happy. Someone told me after reading the book that I feared being unhappy more than I feared death. And I think that's true. Be happy in your life."

"Get to where dogs are."

This wouldn't be a talk about a veterinary memoir if it didn't include a reference to the venerable James Herriot. Sarah addresses this outright: "I was trying not to be another James Herriot. I love him, but I was trying to be another voice in veterinary literature, trying to shed some light on what we do as veterinarians, to help people understand what goes on in our profession. I'm actually considering writing another book on that subject because I think it's an important area to explore."

Given how Sarah found herself at a unique juxtaposition between the same human and veterinary professional specialties of oncology, naturally her book includes discussion on the differences and similarities between the two. "I think there are many ways in which veterinary medicine works better," she says. "I think we are more efficient, more compassionate. We spend more time with our clients, sometimes to our own detriment because people get burnt out and suffer from compassion fatigue. But it's what we do. To compare the time my surgeon spent with me to what my clients ask of me, it's not even in the same world. I'm trying to show that."

And of course, any dialogue on health care must invoke opinions on socialized versus privatized care, especially now that Sarah lives and works in Florida. "There's a little bit of the book contrasting Canadian and US health systems," she says. "I actually don't think socialized medical care is bad. I'm Canadian and believe strongly in socialized medicine. In the end I was treated and it didn't cost me any money but the problem in Canada is it's slow. There are inefficiencies. But, everyone is covered and has the right to have the surgery they need without financial hardship."

Of course you're all wondering, as I was, how Sarah is doing now. I was relived to have her tell me she's great. Her treatment lasted a total of nine months and she laughs this off by saying it was good for writing. "Thyroid is a "good" cancer," she says, "because it has a high cure rate. I'm inching up on that magic five year mark." With no cancer in the lymph nodes, clean margins, radioactive iodine and total thyroidectomy--the whole kit and kaboodle--Sarah says her check ups have been good.

We ended our conversation on a light note. Sarah wanted to emphasize how her book was meant to be humorous and says the most common feedback she's received from the book is that people say they laughed out loud and cried. "To me, that's amazing," she says. "I think as you're going through something like cancer, you have to find a way to have humor in it because it's about finding joy. Try to find the laughter and the joy in things."

I can't think of a better way to end a blog than that. You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @DrSarahBoston.

See you in two weeks--next post will be Monday, June 15.