Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Utopian Feline Future

I must take a moment and share something wonderful with you all. The other week I was reading Vetted, a daughter publication of the DVM360 empire. The October 2016 issue was devoted in part to veterinarians providing their "predictions" for the future of the vet industry. There were the standard  "new technologies will save the world" and "cure for cancer" hopefuls, but, amidst the well-meaning tropes, I found a gem.

Enter Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, feline specialist, and owner of two feline specific hospitals in Oregon and California. Her entry is provided below (a more extended version is available online):

"As Northern American cities continue to grow and urban migration increases, the conflict between demand for feline companionship and well-meaning efforts to sterilize cats will escalate. Chemical sterilization techniques will improve and fewer colonies of cats will be found. This will create a shortage of cats just when people want to adopt. Recognizing this, veterinarians, geneticists, ethologists and other scientists will start working to build a population of cats that people want. The protection of cats will become a worldwide undertaking with every country working to create a healthy gene pool of cats for whom homes can easily be found. And that's how cats will be responsible for world peace."

I love it. No, I love YOU, Dr. Colleran. You have created the perfect blend of scientific fact with socioeconomic observations combined with a healthy dose of full-hearted, well-intentioned assumptions and voila: the future seems bright.

Thank you, Dr. Colleran, for providing us with a utopian feline future.
Stay tuned for the next post on the first Monday of January. Until then: happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

21st Century Vet

I'm a bit of a Luddite, I confess. My iPhone and iPod are out of date and I just don't get Snap Chat. I always prefer a map over innately trusting GPS directions and I can't quite trust making a bank deposit on my phone yet.

But I'm not immune to the fact that there's a lot of cool stuff out there. Even I can get excited about the latest gadgets for writers (although you will have to pry my Moleskine notebook out of my cold, dead hands). And of course the world of veterinary medicine is chugging right along with new medical advances at an impressive rate: 3D printing and micro fracture detection in horse limbs using acoustic sensors are just a few of the newest and brightest technologies in our industry's future.

I hadn't really given a lot of thought to the way technology and vet med can combine in creative ways, although this is really the way scientific discovery begins, right? So you might imagine how delighted I was to talk to Dr. Doug Thal, equine practitioner and practice owner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Doug has spent the last five years developing an app for horse owners called the Horse Side Vet Guide. A writer himself, Doug began by compiling his knowledge and writings of equine ailments to form something practical for use on the farm. Here's the story of how he did it.
Horse Side Vet Guide app
In practice for almost 25 years, Doug was frustrated. "Over time, I have become frustrated by misunderstandings that have arisen from poor information and poor decisions that horse owners make based on something a friend said or something they picked up from the internet," he told me. "I've written articles on horse health and given seminars--all the usual stuff. I felt in the moment they were helpful to the people who read the articles or attended the seminars. But really, I didn't feel it was enough. The people who needed that information the most weren't reading and weren't in attendance."

Doug had at his disposal more than sixty of his own articles and started thinking about how to better organize them to make them more accessible. "In 2011 I got my first smart phone and was amazed," he says. "It dawned on me that here was all this power on your belt, all this access. How could it be used to change how people use information to help their horses? I decided at that point, I was going to make an app."
Doug Thal, DVM
Doug started as anyone should start an overwhelming task (and writing an app from scratch on the entirety of equine ambulatory medicine is about as overwhelming as you can get, in my opinion) and it reminds me of a rhetorical quote: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. But it's not just about taking it step by step. It's thinking about the overall framework.

"The structure I created was based on a horse owner's observations," Doug explains. "It was this idea that really any information accessed needs to start with what the horse owner observes. That sort of approach really seemed to be lacking anywhere else. What people do is go out and see that their horse has a runny eye. Then they'll go back to their computer or ask their friend about it. And the response they'll get is: oh yeah, I had that once and I just squirted some saline in there and it went away. And that might be true, but the question remains: what's causing the runny eye? For some reason, many times that question is lost or disregarded."

Doug's app is based on this informational organization. "I thought of every single observation I've ever heard a horse owner describe to me and started writing," he says. This process evolved from writing in Microsoft Word to File Maker, and then putting the database online. From website to app took even more time and outside help. "I had a strong idea of what I wanted the app to look like but it turned out conceptually, I just was pretty far off," Doug says. "We ended up going through five different app development teams over the course of about two years until finally in late 2013, we launched an ISO app and two months later launched an Android app."

He had arrived.

"We went through an unbelievable adventure just trying to get to that release," says Doug. "And when we did finally get it out, we were proud of it."

Doug reports that his app has been well received and has been downloaded in 70 different countries. His Facebook page is one of the best ways he's been able to get the word out and engage with folks and herein lies the next challenge: marketing. "Marketing is always a challenge," Doug acknowledges. "It's like, ok, we've made this incredible product. I naively thought that you make this great product for only $5 and every horse owner is going to buy it and boy, was I in for a shock. It's just amazing what it takes to market something like that." The key, though, is Doug's belief in his own work. "I'm trying to get it out there because I so believe in it."

Perhaps most interesting is that Doug describes how the app development process has made him become a better veterinarian. "It's helped me fundamentally analyze on a deeper level what it is that we're doing when we communicate with a client about an animal," he says. "I feel like I'm more in touch with what my clients really need and I'm better able to really dive into that. I feel like it's helped me analytically."

"It's helped me fundamentally analyze on a deeper level what it is that we're doing when we communicate with a client about an animal."

I'll jump in here for a moment to clarify some points. The point of Horse Side Vet Guide is not to diagnose a medical problem. That's a vet's job. We all know that. Instead, this app is meant to help owners work through the problem they are seeing in front of them. Step by step, the app takes the owner through identifying what they are seeing, how to determine if it's an emergency, and what it is they need to describe to their veterinarian.

"I wanted it to be an endeavor that vets would feel ok about," Doug says. "I was very careful to make the clear message that this was not encouraging people to diagnose their own animals." Doug says this very fact does frustrate some users. "They say, well, what good is this if I don't have a diagnosis. The answer is you can't have a diagnosis, you shouldn't have a diagnosis." That's for the vet to decide.

Horse Side Vet Guide is always evolving and constantly expanding. Both the website and app update constantly and Doug can--and does--add new information. "I can change something right now and when you open the app, you'll immediately get the updated version," he says. There is also a feature that allows customer feedback if they receive a null search. Doug has added more than one hundred other data points from customer feedback.

Doug says he's also never wanted this app to contain only his thoughts. Gradually, he is adding contributor vets. These folks review his work and there's the hope that soon other vets will write their own content. "It really is supposed to be providing the best information to horse owners, not just my own stuff," he says.

Until next month--happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Growing the Genre: Veterinary Medical Thrillers

What reader doesn't love a good thriller? When the stakes are high and an unlikely hero is thrust into the cross hairs, the reader is engaged, rooting for the underdog, anxiously waiting for a resolution that brings back the balance between good and evil. Add to this the setting of a veterinary clinic and a hero who is a veterinarian and, well, come on. What's there not to love?

This is where Dr. Clare Walker comes in. She, too, loves a good thriller and just so happens to be

a) a veterinarian and
b) an author. 

An author of vet med thrillers, no less. So, you see dear readers, I simply had to talk with her.
Clare Walker, DVM

Let's cut to the chase. Clare recently independently published her first novel, The Keys of Death. It's in the genre of veterinary medical thriller. Move over, physician and medical thriller novelist Robin Cook. The vets are taking charge of the thriller now. (Insert sound effect for the slapping of latex exam gloves.)

Clare relates how her novel was born. "The germ of the idea occurred to me back in the 2000s. I was working as a vet in the suburbs of Chicago. You hear funny things sometimes and there was a rumor that there was one animal hospital in the area that was haunted. It just got me thinking: a haunted veterinary hospital, that's really interesting. Not that my novel has anything to do with a haunted veterinary hospital, but it was based on me rolling with that thought and going further and further out. I got the idea: what would be a veterinarian's worst nightmare? I thought about the animals we put to sleep via humane euthanasia. What if they woke up? That would be a vet's worst nightmare. So that was the thing, that was the spark that made me start writing the book."

Clare has been interested in writing for most of her life and has said from early on that she's held two major interests: books and natural sciences. "I completed the first draft of the book in 2008 as the thesis project of a masters degree I was obtaining in written communications," she continues. "That version was about half the length of the current version. Then I began revising several years later and finally finished it."
A little ambiance...
The search for an agent to represent her work became, after a while, a road block. "I spent a couple of years shopping the novel around for representation," Clare explains. "I got some interest from agents, but they all passed on it. I thought to myself I could grow old and die waiting to get representation for this novel. This was around 2012, when independent publishing really started to be a thing."

Enter the budding popularity of the independent publishing avenue for writers. Clare easily lists some of the hotshots in independent publishing's recent history (Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, The Martian) in her reasoning why she chose to go that route instead of pursuing the questionable fate of waiting for an agent via traditional publishing. "Independent publishing is a thing now," she says. "The lines are blurring. So I decided to go for it."

"I thought to myself I could grow old and die waiting to get representation."

Let the record show that although The Keys of Death is Clare's first novel, it wasn't her first published work. Prior to publication of The Keys of Death, Clare independently published a collection of short stories called Startling Figures. The stories in this collection are of the paranormal/supernatural variety and some involve vet med, too. Clare started with publishing these stories as a way to test the waters of independent publishing. Finding that this method suited her, she went that way again for The Keys of Death and intends to continue down the independent publishing path with her next novel and a second collection of short stories.

One noteworthy reaction from an agent early on was eye-opening, stark, and -- I agree with Clare -- incorrect. Clare was told simply there wasn't a market for vet med thrillers. "I think the timing [for this genre] is excellent," Clare retorts. "People love animals, love their dogs. Vets have a good reputation. There's a huge market for this. These are the same agents who were turning down J.K. Rowling by the dozens. So, never mind. We will go directly to our readers, thank you very much."
"Never mind. We will go directly to our readers, thank you very much."
Currently, Clare has just finished the first draft of her next short story collection and is almost half way through the first draft of her second novel, which is a new vet med thriller, independent of The Keys of Death. It is set in the desert of the American Southwest. "It has a completely new cast of characters," says Clare.
Clare Walker, DVM
As a writer, Clare thinks one of her greatest strengths is creating strong characters. "People really seem to like my characters," she says. "But one of my weaknesses is the speed with which I write. I think I'm too slow. But, you know, I have to make a living. I have to work enough hours at the vet hospital to pay for this writing habit I have."

"I would not be able to write the books that I write if I weren't a veterinarian."

Speaking of working at the vet hospital, Clare enthusiastically acknowledges how being a vet has benefited her writing career. "Writing the vet med thriller -- it's the perfect melding of my two interests: vet med and writing. It's the best of both worlds. When I'm writing a scene that has to do with something veterinary, whether it's a surgical scene or a necropsy or what goes on at the vet hospital -- those scenes basically write themselves because it comes from my own experiences and my own expertise. I would not be able to write the books that I write if I weren't a veterinarian. It's such a cool mixture."

The excitement with which Clare talks about her writing does not wane throughout our discussion. I can tell Clare loves her characters. She describes her cast in The Keys of Death as real people with real problems; she gives them real compassion, almost empathy for fictitious folks. But Clare also stresses that The Keys of Death, despite the title, is uplifting. "Vets do have a good reputation in the world," she says, "but have recently taken a bit of a beating. And now we're reading about how mental illness is a problem among veterinarians so I think this book is really uplifting."

See? A hero in a thriller usually comes out on top in the end, whether she is an FBI agent, private detective, CIA operative, or veterinarian. Justice (and science!) wins again.

Until next month! Happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

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!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Lions, rhinos, and... moose? Oh my!

I am excited. I get excited sometimes, like when there's a new book coming out by Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin or when I learn about a new bookstore or when I order cat-themed apparel or, like today, when I get to share with you all a really cool person I've just met. This guy, let me tell you---Dr. Jerry Haigh: wildlife veterinarian and conservationist, storyteller, author, professor, photographer; I mean, really.
Dr. Jerry Haigh treating a white rhino; photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
Jerry and I spoke on the phone a few weeks ago and I'll relate our discussion in a bit. First, a bit of background is required. Dr. Haigh is a self-described "Kenya-born, Glasgow-schooled veterinarian living in Canada's providence of Saskatchewan." After graduating from Glasgow, Jerry spent his first ten years of professional life working in Kenya, then in the mid 1970s, moved to Canada where he held a post at the University of Saskatchewan's Western College of Veterinary Medicine. Jerry retired in 2009, but continues to be active in wildlife conservation, storytelling, and writing. His first collection of stories about his past, Wrestling with Rhinos, was published in 2002 and followed by The Trouble with Lions and Of Moose and Men. Jerry is currently finishing his fifth book.

Here's a fantastic summary of Jerry's work on YouTube. A must-watch on storytelling. And another sample of Jerry in action on the stage.

I immediately asked Jerry about his oral storytelling. This is an art I know little about and it holds a sort of campfire and smoke-like reverence to me. I asked which Jerry prefers, since he's a master at both: writing or storytelling?
Dr. Jerry Haigh checking a lion in Namibia; photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
"One of the nice things about oral storytelling is that is doesn't have to be the same every time," Jerry says. "You can pick a folk story or a real-life story -- I don't do it the same every time. You react to the audience; you see how the audience is responding. Preschoolers won't get the same story as adults. For example, if you have a picture of your arm up the rear end of a rhino, you get gasps and laughs, especially from kids. Kids always giggle at stories about bums and poop so you make damn sure you tell them it's processed grass you're getting out. The word poop offends nobody and works across all age groups, be it in real life or not. With my career in the background I can switch from biology to 'A long time ago, in a time before time.' I have used three folk stories about poop, one for rhino, another for dikdik and a third for hippos. That's the beauty of folklore."

Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
In comparison to writing, Jerry laments the challenges of typing when one's mind is going one speed and the fingers go another. "Writing is fun," he says. "But storytelling...one of my old students told me the one thing he remembers most about my lectures was my storytelling. That's a nice compliment in a way."

At this point in our conversation, we somehow got completely sidelined talking about the Saskatchewan Rough Riders, a Canadian football team. (Did you know that in Canadian football, they only go to three downs instead of four? Did you also know that I know nothing about either American or Canadian football?) I think it's safe to say if you ever get a chance to fall into conversation with Jerry, DO SO, because you will find yourself learning things that you didn't even know you wanted to learn about.

Leaving that tangent and getting back on track, Jerry said his favorite topic to write about is rhino conversation. "The first proper wildlife patients that I had were rhino," he says. "When I was working in Kenya, there were 6000 rhino in the country and I was helping translocate them out of farmland and into national parks. Now there are less than 600. It's a horror story."
Working rhino, 1974; Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh
Other than expertise in rhinos, Jerry has also had an historic impact on the deer industry: he was the first to do artificial insemination (AI) in deer. "For many, many years I was one of the small number of people who knew anything about deer," Jerry explains. After he perfected his AI technique, off he went to New Zealand. "We took North American elk to New Zealand, the first trip of its kind since 1908 when President Roosevelt donated a small number of elk to New Zealand." Jerry's textbook, Farming Wapiti and Red Deer, was first published in 1993.

You might notice, as I did, that in Jerry's book The Trouble with Lions, there is a forward by Jane Goodall. I had to ask about that. "She's an amazing woman," Jerry says. "Fantastic storyteller. I've seen her on stage for an hour without a single note in front of her. Phenomenal. She preaches a story of hope. And I suppose we have to have hope in the face of what's going on with wildlife. And we're not just talking about African wildlife--it's a global problem."

Many of the stories that Jerry tells orally and writes about in his books, blog, and in magazines come from his expansive experience. Since I can barely recall what I had for breakfast on most days, I asked Jerry if he has volumes of journals that he relies on as his memory-keepers. Other than his medical journals containing his difficult cases back when he worked in Kenya, his answer is: no. "I've got a very good memory for that sort of stuff," he says. "And when needed, I speak to other people to see what they remember, so I have enough stuff to cobble things together." And by cobbling, I'm going to editorialize here and say that he means recounting details such that you can see the feathers on a bird, smell the rhino dung, and swear you hear the roar of the lions coming up behind you. Because if you take a look at his books and listen to his storytelling, that's the sort of experience you'll get.
Photo courtesy Jerry Haigh

Until next month, dear readers!

Monday, January 4, 2016

Not your Common Veterinarian

Last month, I had the privilege of tracking down Elliott Garber, DVM, a unique veterinarian and author. He had some great stuff to tell me about his journey to getting his first novel published, establishing a platform, his writing process, and his secrets to staying focused as a writer. I'd like to share our conversation with you in this month's VetWrite.

Firstly, I had to clarify exactly what Elliott is doing professionally at the moment. You see, Elliott's fascinating blog, The Uncommon Veterinarian, is thick with international intrigue from a vet med point of view. For example, Veterinary Capacity Building in Post-Conflict Liberia and Wildlife Medicine and Conservation Programs in Belize are enough to make anyone's search histories of kittens and tea just seem like, well, come on people. There's a world outside of your steaming cup of Earl Grey. (Rest assured, I am sitting behind a steaming cup of Earl Grey right now.) Elliott clarified currently, he is working as an Army vet based just outside San Diego, dividing his time between providing clinical vet med coverage to the working dogs of the Navy SEALS and veterinary regulatory oversight to lab animal research. In his spare time, he's working on promoting his newly published novel, The Chimera Sequence. And off we go:

In Elliott's novel, a veterinary medical thriller, we follow the main character, the ex-Special Forces veterinarian Cole McBride, chase the origin of an outbreak from central Africa to expose dangerous implications of international terrorism. Intense stuff. Complex stuff. I asked Elliott how he could possibly start something as ambitious as this.

"Writing a book has been a life-long ambition, but this particular story has taken about three years," he says. "The actual idea for this story and then sitting down and doing it just sort of came to me. I remember exactly when it happened. I was traveling for work and I was in a hotel in the Netherlands on the side of the highway. I thought, well, I've always wanted to write a book so let's see what I can do. So I wrote the first couple of paragraphs, then a few more pages, and then I realized it started getting serious."
Elliott Garber, DVM, and his lovely family

Sigh. He makes it sound so easy. Elliott describes that after his initial leap into novel writing, he had to pause the creative process to actually learn how to write a book. Through some research on the craft, he continued and then finished his very first novel.

"I jokingly say that I wish my life were as cool and exciting as my main character's, but in reality, it's not," Elliott says. Do note, however, that his novel is loosely based on Elliott's job and experiences. "I try to write the type of story that I love to read. I tried to tie in all the stuff I naturally have an interest in and have knowledge of. That made the whole writing process a lot easier because doing some of the background research was enjoyable as it was stuff I was interested in learning about."
Dr. Elliott with a small wooly friend.
Somewhat ironically, Elliott's blog came about as a platform for his novel; however, Elliott felt it started turning into something unique in and of itself -- which is good -- but was taking time away from his novel writing -- which is bad. Many writers, including myself, struggle with two key concepts that Elliott hits on here:

1. How to develop a platform
2. How to not let your platform eat away at your creative space

"A lot of people spend a lot of time talking about writing rather than actually writing."

One thing clever about Elliott's blog is its timelessness. Although he's taking a break from blogging at the moment, Elliott's timeless nature of his topics creates a self-described "immortality" in his online content. "My blog went off into its own thing for a while," he says. "And then I got kind of tired of it and stopped updating because I wanted to finish my book. Then I kind of defeated the whole thing because I didn't really use my blog too much for launching my book. It was a big failure," he laughs. Still, Elliott feels his blog has allowed him to communicate with others with similar interests and he's acquired a few speaking engagements out of it at vet schools. So, not quite the failure, after all. Elliott says he would like to get back to the blog at a later point. I think he should, too. "It's not completely dead," he reassures me. "Just hibernating." Podcasting was another branch of the blog, too - listen here.
Dr. Elliott Garber being a bad ass veterinarian.
The time suck of the online presence for writers is a delicious topic to talk about -- maybe because we all fall victim to procrastination and what more self-rewarding, prophetic way to procrastinate as a writer than to talk about procrastination with another writer. "I had to cut back on blogging," continues Elliott. "I just couldn't do everything at once. I frequently saw on writing forums that a lot of people spend a lot of time talking about writing rather than actually writing."

Truer words were never spoken.

Luckily, Elliott remained unchained by the bonds of NOT WRITING and settled into a pattern. Writing in the evenings, Elliott honed technique and took time for research and learned a little about himself along the way. "One of the things I discovered about myself after the first few months of writing was that I couldn't write fiction very well while I had access to the internet. I was always wanting to look up something -- oftentimes related to the book, so it wasn't completely worthless -- but I would just keep bouncing back and forth between writing and getting dragged down the internet wormhole. Then I discovered this app called Freedom App which lets you turn off your access to the internet universally for a certain amount of time. It's funny to think about having to force yourself to do something that you're choosing to do, but I think for a lot of writers it's a struggle to produce content. But I think there's something about getting to the end that makes it worth suffering through the process."

Elliott then hit on a topic that had recently been discussed at my very own writer's group: as a writer, are you a pantser (meaning, you write by the seat of your pants, unplanned and free flowing) or a planner? Elliott discovered he could write his actual novel more efficiently if he had planned a few chapters in advance. "I would write in the style of telling myself what's going to happen without actually writing it in story form, so once I had that settled in my mind, I could switch to the actual story," he says. "It made a big difference in efficiency. There was no more agonizing over deciding what was going to happen next and then actually writing it."

In the end, with novel finished, Elliott explored the traditional publishing routes first. After getting an agent, he ended up rejecting offers from a few publishers, as he felt he'd ultimately have more control over his own intellectual property (and how it was formatted and sold) if he published independently. "From my own research, I knew the offer the publishers were giving me didn't represent much of an investment at all from the part of the publisher so really they would get it out there without a whole lot of input from me. So I turned those offers down. It has been a lot of work for me this year getting everything ready for independent publishing, so now it's a matter of time to see if it was a good investment doing it this way," he says. "But, I've learned a lot and had a good experience." Elliott writes about his process in more detail here.
Dr. Elliott Garber in India
Prior to The Chimera Sequence, Elliott self-published a short story, called No Dog Left Behind. Also available on Amazon, this was Elliott's first experience with independent publishing and it was a positive one. "I try to tell people there are lots of different ways to do this and it's better having a few people read your work than having it sit on your computer having no one read it at all. It was good training for a bigger project."

In the end, Elliott is extremely positive and open-minded about his own future, both as a veterinarian and as a writer. He acknowledges a sequel to his novel is a possibility, but he's not sure when that might happen. He's still waiting to see how well his first novel will do. "There are also a bunch of other things I like doing and am interested in, so I'm kind of doing other things while seeing how this novel goes. I also have other ideas about other totally unrelated books I'd like to write, too. It's just about making the commitment."

Well, hurry up, Dr. Garber. I want to see what all you can do.

Until next month, dear readers!