Monday, April 6, 2015

A collection of kindred spirits: The Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature

It's funny, isn't it, when something you didn't even know you were looking for suddenly pops up out of nowhere? That's what happened recently when I discovered The Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature. What? I thought. You mean to tell me there's a group of vets out there who wants to talk about vet med as it's found in literature??? I assure you, it's true--the DVM book lover's Shangri-La. I spoke to one of the two founders of the group, Dr. Elizabeth Stone, to find out more.

The concept of the Society started in 2001 when Elizabeth and her co-founder, poet Hilde Weisert, put together an elective course for students at NC State University's College of Veterinary Medicine covering vet med and literature. After Elizabeth became Dean at Ontario Veterinary College, she brought the elective with her. "When I had the classes both at NC State and Ontario, the students who would sign up, for many of them, it was like an oasis," she says. "It's like they'd just been all science to get into vet school and once they get in, of course, it's all still science. It's like they have it hidden away in a drawer that they like these other things and they found some other people in the college who were interested in reading. It gives legitimacy to their interest. It's not serious science stuff for once."

After accumulating extensive positive feedback from students who had taken the course, Elizabeth and Hilde went on to organize the first ever international Veterinary Medicine and Literature Symposium in 2010 at the Ontario Veterinary College and in 2012, as editors, published their first collection of short stories and poems sharing the theme of animals and vet med, titled Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People.

Just two years later, Elizabeth collaborated with fellow veterinary professor Cate Dewey to edit another collection of vet med stories, this time featuring zoonotic diseases and titled Sick! Curious Tales of Pests and Parasites We Share with Animals.

Overall, the Society, "promotes the reading and discussion of literary works to explore important issues in veterinary medicine--and for the intrinsic pleasure and value of reading and discussing good literature, a way of renewing one's joy in being a veterinarian and a human being." Although the past few years have been relatively quiescent for the society, Elizabeth and Hilde plan on ramping things up again.

"We've cycled in and out depending on where we are in our lives," says Elizabeth. "But we really do believe in it. We need more than just Hilde and me working on it. It needs to be a true discussion, bringing in different points of view."

To this end, currently the Society meets virtually in an almost monthly fashion to discuss future plans for the group as well as what folks are reading and the relevance to vet med. Membership is free and if you're interested, contact information is available here.

Elizabeth's background in research is evident in one of her goals for the Society, which is to attempt to inventory what's available in terms of written work produced by veterinarians. "Blogs, Twitter accounts, what books are out there by and about other veterinarians, just so people know what's available," she says. "And having links to those things so people can get to them."

Analyzing what literature has to say about veterinarians can also play a vital role in a concept that is currently being discussed and emphasized in North American veterinary schools: diversity. "One of the things that has been impressed upon me while we work with students is that there is a way for people to learn about other societies and that is reading about them. I think using readings from different people's perspectives is another way to teach diversity," she says.

What about those who--gasp--just don't like to read? "There are some people that, because of their backgrounds--maybe in high school they had to dissect a poem--they really really don't like literature," Elizabeth says. "I don't think we're going to change their minds. But those people who are sitting on the fence or do really like it, I think there's a lot there we can work with."

When talking about literature in vet med, the subject of narrative medicine tends to come up. Far better known in human medicine but perhaps still not considered mainstream, narrative medicine is the medical approach that recognizes the importance of the patient's narrative to the clinical perspective. This encompasses listening to the patient's background story and therefore appreciating where the patient is coming from. Sound compassionate? That's the point. And I think to a great extent, veterinarians use this method as well (e.g. our patients can't talk to us so we get the story from the owner), but perhaps we just don't have a formal label for it. Narrative medicine also includes reading and writing on the physician's side, as means to foster creativity and self-reflection. Starting in 2009, Columbia University is now offering a master's program in narrative medicine. Additionally, there is actually a literary journal published called Intima that is specifically a journal for narrative medicine. What a wonderful creative tool for physicians!


Naturally, a conversation with Elizabeth eventually turns to the market for books about vet med or works that feature veterinarians. Given her background of scrounging for vet med-related pieces for her elective courses and for the Society, she has interesting insight into what's out there. "A lot of the work that is written by veterinarians is humorous, the 'guess what I have in the refrigerator' kind of thing. That may only go so far," she says. "Also a lot of it is making fun of clients which of course is the favorite pastime of veterinarians [it's true, sorry] but people who are clients don't necessarily want to read about that [also true]."

Somewhat ironically, although we work with animals and practically live for animals, what people seem to want to read about are humans, no matter the context. Elizabeth points to the king of vet med in literature, James Herriot, as an example of this. "What he's really writing about is the people," she says. "The descriptions of him finishing vet school and going into practice for the first time--we've used those chapters before in our classes and I think they really speak to people."

However, there is something about those darned saccharine sweet doggie tales that keep popping up on best-seller lists. "There do seem to be books about dogs that are best sellers," Elizabeth agrees. "What is it about that, from the veterinary side of it?"

I suppose if put head to head with a James Patterson thriller, I'd pick the sugary dog tale, too. On mere principle, of course.

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