Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Baptism of Blood

Some things are indescribable.  Some things, though for the greater good, are hideous in their execution.  Some things are absurd.

I've made a friend amongst the university faculty; I'll call him Dr. Canters for the sake of privacy.  He's been looking, I think, for a student to help him implement some new ideas, and I've been looking for an outlet to experience more hands-on learning.  With a mutual interest in equine medicine and welfare, we are a lucky match, each able to assist with the other's goals.  Canters is a strange man, though.  Unnervingly brilliant, he never stops or stands still, always rushing off to new projects and experiments, always pushing the envelope.  He expects the same of students, and though he is not strictly speaking a professor (but rather a clinician who assists with answering questions in the Anatomy laboratory), he devotes untold hours to studying the material so that he can better help us, and he sticks around after class or on weekends, completely uncompensated, to tutor struggling students.  He has a practically unnatural burning desire to teach and learn and continuously improve.

And so that is how last week I found myself a slave to one of Canters' whims, and how I ended up in the most godforsaken dungeon, covered in blood and tightly gripping a knife while I stood above my new mentor, watching him furiously saw the head off of a horse.

To give much background might needlessly complicate the story.  To grossly summarize, let me just say that when large animals are euthanized for whatever reason, they tend to pile up in the freezer to await either incineration or the rendering truck.  

Canters and I had the idea to make like American Indians and preserve as much of the animal as we could, so that little would go to waste.  We intended to cut the legs from the corpses of the deceased horses to take back to my classmates for a hands-on laboratory session.  He would then teach us how to inject joints and block nerves, something we'll all have to do in our eventual practices.  That way, the horses' deaths could come to additional good by being used to train budding veterinarians, and we students would gain some much-needed practical applications to drive the points from Anatomy more solidly into our thick skulls.

This wasn't what I'd had in mind, so many years prior.  When a little girl who loves animals sets her heart on becoming a veterinarian, she first imagines the happy images of healing her patients and setting right the world's wrongs.  Later on, if she sticks with her dream, she'll come to appreciate the scientific aspect, and perhaps begin to come to terms with some of the more unsavory aspects of the profession, such as belligerent clients or the eventual euthanasia of beloved animals.  But I assure you that she's not anticipating climbing that quivering mound of cooling flesh that now lay before me, a knife in one hand, a saw in the other, and black congealed blood splashed across her oversized coveralls.  This, however, was where I stood, and I gritted my teeth with determination.  I held the equines' legs at awkward angles while Canters hacked away, periodically pausing to quiz me on whatever structures now lay exposed beneath his blade.  Occasionally this blade would open up a major blood vessel, and thick dark blood would come bubbling out to splatter on the floor.  Bones snapped, fascia tore, and at one point, the horse on the top of the stack began to slide off and nearly fell on top of us, which would have smashed us into the pile of dead calves that lay just to the side.  Across the way, garbage bags and biohazard barrels full of body part soup steamed with the fading warmth of their unspeakable contents.  The stench of death and decay and feces was overpowering.  The scene was so morbid and grotesque that it was laughable. 

In the end, we dragged 10 stumps of cadaver limbs out of the cooler.  We packaged them in plastic bags, and I thought that our work was done.  I soon learned that Canters had an ulterior motive, however.  After we'd severed limbs from the large horse who lay out in the middle of the floor, he said that he wanted to save the head, as well.  I found nothing odd about this, as we are currently learning about the skull and cranial organs in the lab, so I presumed he intended to show it to students.  He knelt down and began to make deft cuts through the neck, then paused for a moment of contemplation, finally saying, to no one in particular, "Bay Sissy."  I looked at him, confused, so he explained:  "That was her name.  Bay Sissy."  He returned to his work, but then I understood.  He'd known and loved the mare, and he later told me a little more about her, and how he had worked with her, and how when he'd found out she was set to be euthanized, he had gone and told her goodbye, and then he had not gone back.  He now sawed through her cervical vertebrae, and with his knife completed the severance of head and neck.  "There.  I'll preserve her skull.  Her soul can stay there--" and he trailed off. 

We cut another head, next, this time from an unnamed horse.  This individual was not treated with such reverence, but instead as the expected specimen for our lab.  Canters carefully sliced it into cross sections so that we could see the hidden structures:  the larynx, the frontal sinuses, the gutteral pouches, the brain vesicles.  As the mechanical saw cut through the long hard cheek teeth, heat built up and smoke billowed from the horse's nostrils like a cartoon dragon.  We laughed, nervously.

Three hours of this, and finally everything was prepared.  Dr. Canters washed the equipment, and I rinsed the blood from our specimens.  Bay Sissy's mane was matted with dried crusts, and I carefully cleaned its coils.  Her head still looked eerily alive.  Her ears drooped to the side, as a relaxing horse's will, and her soft open eyes gazed off into nothing.  "Does this bother you," I asked when Canters returned, "having to work this way on a horse that you knew and liked?"

"Before, when I heard she was going to be euthanized, yes.  But, now....well, she had a good life."

Yes, this is the contradiction of the veterinarian.  This is the paradox.  To give life, and to take it away.  To love all creatures, and to irreverently stack their remains in a corner to await the renderer.  To heal the living, and the hack the dead to bits.  To do work seemingly both for the glory of God and the delight of the Devil.

I feel I must end by saying that I typed these words simply to get the images that sear my brain out of my head.  I share them now, too, just so that others may hear and appreciate the sometimes unsavory work that goes into the educating of a veterinarian.  And I must add that the joint injection lab was a rousing success, so our work was by no means in vain.  All in attendance had a good time, and we all learned valuable lessons that we will be able to put into practice at some point in the not-too-distant future.  Most importantly, I do not wish to cast blame on anyone or any institution.  What was and is done is ugly, but it is a necessary evil.  Life is neither pretty nor fair, and the people who try to temper that with always-new efforts to learn and explore are the good guys in the equation, or at least not the bad ones, though the implications require death and decay. 

I may have washed some of the innocence of infancy down the drain along with the horse blood, but I emerged from the experience somehow cleansed.  I've learned a lot in the past week; I'm growing.  The sacrifices made by the experimental animals were not in vain.  My classmates and I appreciate their gift, and we will carry it forward with us into our lives beyond these doors.

So beyond that, all I have left to say is this:

Rest in peace, Bay Sissy, and thank you.