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.