Monday, May 18, 2015

Painting for a Cause

It's interesting to me to pick the brains of those who have artistic capabilities. How they analyze color and light, how they pick their subjects, how they tackle a project, and where their inspiration comes from illuminates their unique views of the world such that I can't help but be fascinated. For this week at VetWrite, I had the privilege to speak with Michelle McCune, DVM. A veterinarian and painter, Michelle's many visits to Africa have inspired her art and her connections to wildlife conservation.

"Royal Repose" by Michelle McCune, DVM
Michelle's first visit to Africa was in vet school. "When I first went to Namibia, it was the first time I had even left the country," she says. "I went to a country I'd never even heard of." After inquiring about free-ranging wildlife programs, Michelle found herself working side by side with Dr. Laurie Marker within the Cheetah Conversation Fund (CCF).

"At that time, it was a start-up organization out on a farm," she says. "My main job was entering data for the cheetah stud book." During her Namibia visit, Michelle would go on walks, enjoy the wildlife, and take photographs. "It was such an inspiring place to be. CCF does conservation from a very problem-solving direction. They don't go out as bleeding hearts and say: don't shoot the cheetahs. They work a lot on farm management and education. The education really ties in a lot of aspects of veterinary medicine. It really opened my eyes to how conservation can be accomplished successfully."

When Michelle returned state-side, she finished her DVM degree. Settling into small animal practice, Michelle, her husband, and growing family traveled back to various African countries and each time, Michelle would return with stories and photographs. Although Michelle was an avid artist in high school, her other talents for science and math drove her toward veterinary medicine while her sister was the art major. However, after being invited to an art class once while in her vet practice, Michelle found herself drawn back to her creative roots.
"Nathan's Koi" by Michelle McCune, DVM
"I started with still lifes and sketching and I ended up looking for things that inspired me to paint," Michelle says. "I found I was going back to photos I had taken in Africa and that's what really motivated me. I was really excited about that and it really refreshed my memory about my trips, so I started picking more and more of those photos to paint."

Michelle then explains how she got it all--veterinary medicine, her love of wildlife, and painting--to meld together. "From a veterinary perspective, obviously I had a passion for animals. I always wanted to do more for conservation. I am in small animal practice and I enjoy working with the patients and educating clients, but I felt something was missing. I kept thinking I have had these really cool experiences but I'm not doing anything with them. So I started looking for a way to really tie it all in together and discovered a group called Artists for Conservation."
"Watcher!" by Michelle McCune, DVM
Artists for Conservation is a juried art group. Michelle applied in 2008 and was accepted into their juried show. "It was really amazing and I was incredibly humbled," she says. There, she met other like-minded artists who shared her passion for wildlife conservation. Since then, Michelle has attended numerous workshops with the group. The money she earns from her paintings goes back into wildlife conservation.

"I think with my art and my being a veterinarian, I'm really interested in the interactions between the animals," she says of her two vocations. "A lot of what I do is almost portraiture because I am really trying to capture the personality of the animal itself. You know from practice that one dog isn't another isn't another and the same goes for animals in the wild. It's watching their interactions and trying to bring out the emotion and actually identify with the animal--that's what I try to bring to my art."
"Meeting of the Minds" by Michelle McCune
Every one of Michelle's paintings has a story behind it that she originally captured on camera from her trips. While some artists are drawn to pet portraiture or other ways of capturing domestic species, Michelle's focus is solely on wildlife.

"I've got one piece that's a close-up of a Cape buffalo. It's called Mbogo, which is the Namibian word for buffalo. These buffalo are cranky, nasty, very temperamental, dangerous animals--not your domestic water buffalo. They are usually portrayed with oxpeckers in their ears and snot coming out of their noses--they are really portrayed as ugly. I was trying to find the beauty in the beast. This is one of my favorite paintings because you see the power in the animal--it's not about snot coming out of his nose. It's about his eyes and his expression."
"Mbogo" by Michelle McCune, DVM
Michelle frequently helps fellow artists on various anatomical details, given her background. "My anatomical knowledge also helps me watch myself to make sure I'm portraying things accurately."

Frequently, Michelle's art compels an education for the viewer. For example, her piece "Birds of a Feather."
"Birds of a Feather" by Michelle McCune, DVM
"This piece shows a bunch of oxpeckers on the back of a zebra," she explains. "This zebra had been attacked by a lion. It had big wounds on its sides and when it came up to the watering hole, the birds were cleaning its wounds. You don't see these birds on zebras very often. You see them on giraffes, Cape buffalo, and rhino."

Although Michelle finds paintings that contain lots of stripes or spots to be visually challenging ("They make me dizzy and I have to take breaks," she says), she finds scaling down her large, expressive strokes into smaller pieces difficult. "I find I am drawn to painting large," she says.

Michelle's enthusiasm, however, seems to happily be her biggest challenge. "I just get so excited that sometimes I just jump right in without thinking what I'm doing and I end up with bad colors or bad values or edge work that's off. These are things that I have to go back and fix later. I just really need to control my enthusiasm! I never have a lack of inspiration."

Currently, Michelle practices small animal medicine part time and is able to paint during the remainder of the week in her studio, Vanishing Visions.

Please join me for my next post, Monday, June 1.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Heralds of (Veterinary) History

I was extremely disinterested in history in school. Ancient Roman history, War of the Roses, American Civil War--nothing. As I grew older, I developed a cursory interest in World War II, no thanks to a brother and father who both craft an obsession with WWII airplanes. During my freshman year of vet school, however, we had one lecture taught by the resident medical illustrator, David J. Williams. He is the co-author of a book called Veterinary Medicine: An Illustrated History. Suddenly, history became relevant to me. I was fascinated by all the antiquated instruments, "treatments", and stories of the progression of science. (Don't get me started on the riveting history of the development of vaccines.)

Enter, then, my recent discovery of a small but passionate group of veterinarians and historians who make up the American Veterinary Medical History Society (AVMHS). The introduction on their homepage says it all, so I will quote:

"Veterinarians are often not aware of the historical significance of their profession. Generally, they and others do not know or do not realize the significant role that veterinary medicine has in American history. The profession has boosted static economies, assured war victories, provided safe meat and dairy products, helped build thriving livestock industries and has been instrumental in the development of human health measures."

The purpose of the society is five-fold:
  • to become aware of published and unpublished materials and artifacts pertaining to the history of veterinary medicine and health care of animals in North and South America; 
  • to promote research and study of veterinary history and related topics; 
  • to communicate information about veterinary history in part through publication of a journal/newsletter and through seminars/meetings; 
  • to develop and distribute educational materials on the history of veterinary medicine; and
  • to assess the role of veterinarians in society and to study their impact on animal and human medicine and scientific research.
I was fortunate enough last month to converse with Dr. Howard Erickson, professor of anatomy and physiology at Kansas State University and a past president of the AVMHS, on veterinary history and how it's important to keep it near and dear to the profession. Here's what he had to say.

"Winston Churchill said, 'The farther backward you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.' I think veterinarians need to know something about their history in order to make significant advancements in the profession, to make new discoveries in disease, in vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and also to be the best in their clinical specialty."

Howard has served on the board of directors for AVMHS from 2006 to 2009. He has presented numerous papers on various historical veterinary topics and teaches a one hour elective on the history of veterinary medicine in the fall semester at KSU's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"I started going to AVMHS meetings on occasion about 20 years ago," Howard says of his initial interest in the subject. "I think I became more actively involved in the AVMHS when I helped write the history of our college [KSU] for our centennial in 2005."
Some of Howard's past professors helped shape his interest in history. "When I began college in my home town of Wahoo, Nebraska, at Luther College in 1953, I had a blind professor by the name of Iverne Dowie who taught modern history. He had a PhD from the University of Minnesota, knew exactly who was in class, what each student was going, even though he could not see." A 1913 Kansas City Veterinary College graduate from Howard's home town later wrote a letter of recommendation for his admission to KSU. This letter in and of itself is now considered historically relevant, as a link to a past where veterinary medicine was in its infancy, with academic credentials not yet harmonized throughout the country.
Courtesy Dr. Howard Erickson and AVMHS
So now we're not only talking about the fascinating history behind the science of veterinary medicine itself but also how the profession developed and grew in its legitimacy within the United States. Now we're getting into the good stuff.
Kansas City Veterinary College ambulance, credit: C. Trenton Boyd Collection
Unfortunately, most of this good stuff hasn't survived time. Relics are lost. Documents destroyed. And, of course, people die. "There were many early private schools of veterinary medicine that we know little about, have no photographs of their buildings or of their graduates," says Howard. "We also know very little of some of the early graduates." Many libraries and museums have little interest in keeping such artifacts.

Herein lies one of the biggest challenges for AVMHS and for other international veterinary historical societies: finding, achiving, and maintaining artifacts. After all, doesn't history lose some relevancy if you have nothing to show for it?

Although the AVMHS itself does not have its own museum, it has a brochure and listing outlining various farm and agricultural museums around the U.S. that have veterinary history displays.
Instead of pining for a museum that AVMHS could call home, Howard himself is extremely practical in his hopes for the future. "We would like to see an increase in the membership in the AVMHS and greater visibility within the AVMA [American Veterinary Medical Association]." The fact that life is so damn tech-y these days also isn't lost on these history buffs. Antiquated Luddites they are not. "We need a better website," Howard admits.

What AVMHS does have is gifted, passionate people both as members and on the board. AVMHS produces a regular newsletter, publishes a research journal called Veterinary Heritage (which is a delightful read and edited by the very same David J. Williams we met at the start of this blog), and holds annual meetings that jive with the location of the annual AVMA convention (Boston this summer) so really, you guys, there's no excuse not to check them out.

On a side note, Howard will be presenting a paper at the AVMHS meeting in Boston this July on "The History of George Dadd, the Boston Veterinary Institute, and Early Presidents of the United States Veterinary Medical Association." Dadd was a veterinarian and author of The Theory and Practice of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery.
Courtesy Dr. Howard Erickson and AVMHS
Of course, the U.S. isn't the only country to have an organized society devoted to veterinary medical history. England, Germany, and Turkey are other nations that Howard lists that have strong societies and there's even a World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine. After all, the very first veterinary colleges were born in Europe.

The National Veterinary School of Lyon, France
But at the end of the day, AVMHS holds its own. "I think the AVMHS is one of the strongest veterinary medical history societies in the world," Howard says. Totally.

Stay tuned: next VetWrite blog is up Monday, May 18.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Practice of Painting

We veterinarians are lucky. We have some beautiful patients. For those who are artistically inclined, the animal world presents limitless inspiration. Veterinarians who are talented enough to act as double agents with a stethoscope in one hand and a paintbrush in the other are fascinating to me--a mix of a scientifically trained eye with an intuitive sense of color and balance. Veterinarian and painter Dr. John Fawcett is no exception and I was lucky enough to talk with him about his background, art, and inspirations.
"Two Champions" by John Fawcett, DVM
A DVM graduate from Iowa State University, John steadily built his own practice in Pennsylvania, where he worked for 20 years. "As a kid I always drew. It was a hobby and I just always really liked it," says John. "But I never thought it would be anything more than a hobby."

Understandably, during vet school and later as a solo practitioner, there was little time for painting. A common theme with vets who seek the creative side while practicing, time is the limiting commodity. Prior to hiring associates, John tried to find time to paint in the evenings. "It was a release, more of a relaxation to help relieve stress from the practice."

As his practice grew, John was able to carve increasing amounts of time out of his schedule to pursue his artistic passion. With his wife, John visited a western art show in Arizona. "I was completely enthralled with the genre of western art, which I didn't know a whole lot about at the time," John says. "I pursued that theme and it grew to the point where I got in an invitational show and I got in a gallery. I painted more and more because I got excited about it. I became very passionate about it and it was taking up as much of my free time as I could spare while I was still practicing. It became such that I thought that I really couldn't get any better as an artist unless I put more time into it. So I had to decide if this was going to be just a hobby or more of a vocation for me."
"The Looking Glass" by John Fawcett, DVM
Enter the pivot point: to remain where you are, doing what you've always done (and are good at) or to take a leap of faith to pursue your true passion, which is not without its risks. To remain comfortable and content or to step outside the boundary of your comfort zone for a chance at something with far greater internal reward. Examining character at such a point can illuminate a universe of things about that character. This is not saying leave your vet career for something potentially more illustrious. This is not implying a value or judgement on those who are able to choose, or on what they choose. This is examining something as small as and yet as large as a single life choice.

John explains beautifully how he made his:

"I talked to my stepfather who was a recently retired physician. I was having a hard time trying to decide what I wanted to do. I had built this successful practice and did I just want to throw that all away? But I was so passionate about my artwork. My stepfather posed a question to me that decided my career then. He asked: when you're painting do you think about veterinarian medicine? And I said: no. And he asked: when you're doing surgery, do you think about art? And I said: yes, all the time. So he said, well, there's your decision right there."

So John sold his practice and became a full time painter.

Is this sort of decision easy? Of course not. "To tell you the truth, I had real guilt feelings after I sold my practice because I thought that I wasn't really working. I enjoyed painting so much, it still felt like a hobby to me. It felt like I was just goofing off all the time, even though I was putting in as many hours as I was practicing."

Sometimes, all it takes is the sage observation of an objective spouse to set things right. "My wife kept telling me: this is your profession, get over it."
"Recent Visitors" by John Fawcett, DVM
"I kept my veterinary license for 4 years after I quit practicing," continues John. "I heard that Tammy Wynette was a beautician before she became a country singer and she held her beautician license because if she didn't make it big, she could always go back to being a hair dresser. In about 2000 I let my license lapse and the rest of course is history. I now paint full time and have around five galleries that represent me throughout the country. It worked out well. I'm very fortunate but it's not an easy thing. It's like jumping off a bridge."

As it turns out, a DVM degree is quite helpful when it comes to art. "I've said having a veterinary background is really the longest anatomy lesson an artist could ever have," says John. "Most of my paintings deal with figurative work whether it be humans or animals. I think the veterinary profession has helped me immensely as far as that goes. Horses are such complex animals. Even when I know what I know about their anatomy, they are really a difficult animal to paint and get everything right."
"Born to the Land" by John Fawcett, DVM
As John continues to paint in the genre of western art--the art he fell in love with at the Arizona art show years ago--he brings a story into each piece. His interest in history marries well with his subject matter. "I'm very much interested in history and the relationship of the horse with both the historic and contemporary working cowboy and the native Americans. The history of the horse in North America is fascinating to me."

In addition to his studio in Pennsylvania, John and his wife also have a ranch in Colorado. It's here, out west, where John gathers a lot of his inspiration. He's met local cowboys in the ranching community and has visited various historic ranches. John has also been introduced to Native Americans who have invited him into their tribes. He develops relationships with these people and their horses, and a story soon develops that is then re-created on canvas.
"To the Gate" by John Fawcett, DVM
"There are a lot of different facets to art," John explains. "It's not just picking up a brush and painting something you think is beautiful. To me, it's a history lesson, an anatomy lesson. It's something that can give you beauty as well as make you think about what's going on in the painting. It can be very involved with studying the piece from concept and ideas to the fruition of the painting."

If you cruise through John's collections of paintings, you'll notice predominantly equine watercolors and oils. Although many are in the western theme, there are other working horses exemplified--draft horses and racing horses, for example. In fact, John had the opportunity to paint the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro.
"The Unbeaten Barbaro" by John Fawcett
"I just wanted the opportunity to paint such a magnificent animal," says John. "His owners and I came up with the idea that I would do two paintings, a watercolor and an oil, and they would be auctioned at the Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA) Auction in Lexington at a fundraiser. The TCA benefits retired racehorses and retired jockeys. This gave me an opportunity to paint a beautiful, strong animal."
"Barbaro" by John Fawcett
John's connections then led him to paint Breeder's Cup winners. "I love painting Thoroughbreds," he says. "But also draft horses, Indian ponies, whatever. They are different types of equine paintings but they are still from the same structure. I'm fascinated with anything equine, really."

As John's artistic talents continue to evolve and improve, some of his works feature greater detail and the capacity to tell a story increases exponentially as a result. "Painting is the same as anything," he says to me. "You're a writer. So it's the same thing that you go through." Idea, research, draft, end product. It's more than a little comforting to realize that the creative process is similar no matter what the format or end product.

Stay tuned for the next blog, Monday, May 4.

Monday, April 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, March 16, 2015

Illuminating the Art of Medical Illustration

I have always been intrigued by the artwork featured in anatomy, physiology, and surgical books. The unique beauty of a feline humerus, a cross section of intestinal epithelium, a depiction of the differentiation of bone marrow cells - who is responsible for these brutally accurate portrayals? How would one begin to draw the equine digestive system, esophagus to colon? I for one can't even manage an image that remotely mimics a hoof or nostril, let alone the intimate details of the greater trochanter of the femur. This set of skills and embodiment of artistic talent lies in a very special group of people: medical illustrators.

Last week I had the great pleasure of talking to one of the few certified medical illustrators in the country who is also a veterinarian, Dr. Lauren Sawchyn. Owner and creative director of Sawchyn Medical Illustration, Lauren shared with me her background, her inspirations, and her artistic process.
"Many Paths, One Profession" by L. Sawchyn

Lauren started drawing from an early age and her mother, a veterinary technician and practice manager, was a strong inspiration. "My mother was always very creative, so I guess I got that gene from her," says Lauren. When Lauren was young, her mother brought home a copy of Hill's Atlas of Veterinary Clinical Anatomy. Lauren was entranced. "It was made so that you could take it into the exam room and write on it with a dry erase marker. It was cool. I kept it all through the years and I loved it. It was fascinating -- all these disease drawings of dogs and cats. Kind of gruesome for a little kind, but I was like: whoa! That connected with me as I grew older and discovered the field of medical illustration."
"AIEC Invades Canine Intestinal Epithelium" by L. Sawchyn

After struggling with the notion that she might have to choose between art and veterinary medicine as a vocation, Lauren earned her Bachelor's degree in studio arts with a minor in zoology at the University of Maine. After that, she gained entrance into one of only five medical illustration master's programs in the country then rounded out her education at Cornell's vet school, where she began to sow the seeds of her business. "I ended up doing a lot of illustrations for my professors while I was at Cornell," she says. "That led to connections I later had when I opened my business."

After graduation from Cornell, Lauren dove into small animal practice and since has slowly started to weave medical illustration into the milieu. She now practices a few times a week and spends the other days in her studio.

From her portfolio, it's easy to see that Lauren has worked on numerous projects but when asked for a favorite, there's delightfully no answer. "The question of which project is my favorite is a really hard question for me because I love all of them," she says. "I wish I did have a favorite so that way I could specialize more, but I just love them all. Most of my work, based on what I've done in the past and where my connections are, is for veterinarians doing research. I've done a little bit of textbook work. Most clients are doing really interesting research projects and they call me to draw and help visualize the research."
"Measuring the equine optic nerve sheath diameter" by L. Sawchyn

Many clients will come to Lauren with a project and commission her for the accompanying artwork. Other times, Lauren works on creating a portfolio of stock images she can use and refer to in the future. With so many facets to medical illustration, even though she needs to be medically accurate, there are still plenty of ways for Lauren to put her own creative spin--her own style--on her work. But because of the nature of copyright laws in the art world, Lauren licenses the use of her work to clients instead of selling the art outright. "If I draw a picture of a dog heart and I give that to someone who has commissioned me and I give that copyright to them, then I can never draw another dog heart that looks like that again in that particular style without infringing on that," she explains.
"Feline Lateral Skeleton" by L. Sawchyn

The amount of personal style Lauren puts in a project depends on the project itself. "If it's an editorial piece, you can be more creative than if it's a surgical drawing for a textbook. With that, you can't get too wild with the color and designs, unfortunately, because you want it to be really clear and really accurate because someone is going to be doing surgery after they look at your picture. But all that presents a challenge and it's fun. It's fun to take it to both extremes. There has to be an element of creativity to all of it."

My memory jumps back to the "old days" where textbooks showed standard colors, standard views. Where will modern science take the medical art world? "Where we are right now in scientific discovery, there are still so many unknowns that it gives the artist a lot of liberty to just go with it. We don't truly exactly know the color of some cells and things like that. It can be challenging and sometimes frustrating but also really fun because you can create and visualize a whole environment. There are some people who are like: THE VEINS MUST BE BLUE AND THE NERVES MUST BE YELLOW. There's very standard stuff, but you can play with that and that's fun."

"Feline Portosystemic Shunt" by L. Sawchyn
When describing her technique and the tools she uses, Lauren discusses the balance of classical art techniques with today's technology. "When I was in art school, we used a lot of the old techniques, like pen and ink, but now, there are a lot of computer software programs. You're not so much relying on the computer; the computer doesn't make it easier. It's just a different tool. Instead of using a pen with ink on a piece of paper, I'm using a tablet that draws a line directly into a software program. It's a different tool but I'm still drawing a line."

"I still create what I call fine art on the easel," she continues. "People commission me to do pet portraits. That technique is still there and it needs to be there. People think of art as: you're just born with it. I think you're born with an aptitude and then you have to do years and years of training to get the technical skills right."

"Toggle Pin Stabilization of Bovine Left Displaced Abomasum" by L. Sawchyn
Obviously, an in-depth knowledge of anatomy and pathology weigh heavily in Lauren's work. She still dissects when she needs to, for reference. "I have enough of a reference library and background built up that for many drawings, I can reference my own photos, my own sketches, and check them with peer-reviewed data and published text books," she says. "But let's say someone contacted me tomorrow and asked me to draw the anatomy of a sugar glider. I would probably have to get more resources and even go to a school or museum and do a dissection in order to review that. It's really important for a medical illustrator to be as accurate as possible."

"I find ruminants especially challenging," she continues. "There's a lot with camelid anatomy compared to sheep and goats that for some reason people want to lump all together and they really do not have the same anatomy. That to me is fun. Camelid anatomy that I've done has been more challenging than others."  
"Clinical Anatomy of the Camelid Stomach" by L. Sawchyn

Although being in private practice as stolen some of Lauren's doodling time away, she still finds ways to be loose with her art. "I come from a fine art background. I did some really funky paintings. And then you go into realism with those highly accurate drawings that are really cool but sometimes you need to let your brain float away from that. Most of my doodles are actually of my own pets. I'll also have various paintings going on in my studio. Sometimes they sit on my easel for a long time while I work on other projects, but I come back to them. Sometimes I go outside; I live by the ocean. A lot of that inspires what I do, what colors I choose. That's a more relaxing form of artwork. I won't say I like one more than the other, it just uses a different part of my brain."

Going back to the pet portraiture Lauren finds herself commissioned to do, she says that part of her business wasn't planned but it's a nice extra. "Just by being in practice, you see pets from birth to death and I have owners approach me and ask if I'd do a portrait of their pet that passed away. That's nice. It means a lot to people and it's a nice thing for me to get involved in. People approach me with the most fantastic ideas."

Speaking of fascinating.... how about body art? "I cannot tell you how many people have approached me to design their tattoos!" Lauren laughs. "Which I would totally do! I've told every single person: tell me what you would like and I'll do it. But, so far, no one has followed through. It cracks me up."

Stay creative and stay tuned for my next blog, Monday, April 6.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Writing Way

If you think about it, veterinarians are writers in their own right. If we practice medicine, we write medical records; if we do research, we write study protocols and publish our results. We also provide information to the public via webpages, blogs, brochures, magazine articles, and of course books.

But what about writing for pleasure? How often do we do that? (Not enough!)

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to talk to Dr. Courtney Diehl, a veterinarian in a mixed practice (mostly horses, with some small ruminants, alpacas, and cats and dogs thrown in to keep things exciting) in Steamboat Springs, CO. A practice owner and mother of two, Courtney has found the time to write, and in fact published her first book just a year ago, in February 2014: Horse Vet: Chronicles of a Mobile Veterinarian. I wanted to catch up with Courtney and steal some of her secrets.

"I wasn't very organized at all," Courtney says of her writing process for her book. "I just sort of wrote down the stuff I would think about, or I'd have a run-in with someone and it would trigger my memory and then I would think of all the other stories that relate, so then I'd have to sit down and write them all out."

Horse Vet, in Courtney's own words, is a compilation of tales from the vet's perspective. "Good, bad, and ugly," she says. "A lot of it related to how I dealt with some of the more difficult personalities. We are all aware of the pretty high rate of suicide in our profession and I was actually struggling. Not with suicide, but I was definitely feeling down. I was just trying to feel like where I was at was OK."

Difficult personality types, whether in client (or animal!) form, colleagues, neighbors, or family, can be trying for even the most stoic of souls.

"I was giving these personalities way too much power in my life," Courtney continues. "They would not only wreck my day, but also my month and make me feel bad about myself. Finally, I was like: nobody can make me feel bad about myself. I thought maybe it would also be helpful to some of my colleagues who were dealing with the same things for me to say, hey, I struggle, too, and I still struggle, of course, but here are some of the tools I use to help cope with these people without losing my sanity."

Many scenarios that Courtney writes about contain elements of the dynamic and multifaceted vet-client-patient relationship. There are good days and there are bad days in these relationships and Courtney felt the need to express the full spectrum of what this means. "I wasn't writing to make friends," she says. "I was writing because it was real and that's what we have to deal with. It was time somebody told the story from the vet's perspective and how we make our lives work."

In the end, Courtney found the process immensely therapeutic, keying into one of the greatest benefits of writing for pleasure. On a side note, as I struggle to continue a journal, something I've done since senior year in vet school, I have to cue myself in to the known benefits to personal writing. Look here for a wonderful collection on great writers' reasons for keeping a diary.

"It was cathartic for me in so many ways, just to get it down," Courtney says. "After writing through some of the difficult parts and really looking at myself, I was like: whoa, I really have changed. I've gotten better and stronger and wow. Before, I hadn't really stopped to measure my own progress. Writing this book was instrumental in helping me do that."

After finishing the book, Courtney describes it as having a new best friend, a confidant who knew her strengths and when she faced something challenging, she knew she had faced something similar before, and documented it. The book was saying: don't worry, you got this.

Courtney's target audience was her veterinary colleagues as well as people who were thinking about going into the veterinary world. "I wrote this book to say hey, here's a cross-section of my life as a reality check."

One of the most telling aspects of my conversation with Courtney (telling about the veterinary profession, that is) was when she elaborated on her intended then omitted chapter on finances. "I had a whole chapter in there about numbers and finances," she says. "It was so grim and miserable. I couldn't find a way to make it fun or even readable and I finally gave up and took it out. It was all just lists of numbers and I was like, OK, this isn't working. Unless someone finds a fun way to write about this, no one will want to read it."

Student loan debt, often in the neighborhood of six figures, along with an average salary that isn't increasing comparatively with tuition and a mismatch between the increasing numbers of vets being produced without a workforce that can employ them all are grim realities of the industry. Are these issues that bad that we can't even find a way to express them on paper in a compelling manner?

But enough about the doom and gloom. We're here to celebrate creativity, not roll in self-pity. Go ahead, put your party hats back on.

I like to talk to veterinarians who are writers about the venerable James Herriot because I feel he is the quintessential veterinarian in literature. Read and beloved by millions in a fandom than now spans generations, is it time for a 21st century version? Is that even possible?

Courtney makes an interesting point: it may not be possible. "A modern version of James Herriot, with so many modern concerns like student loan debt, the supplement industry, crazy horse lady stuff... old Herriot would have gone: what in the world? What am I doing here?"
It's all fun and games until someone steps in the cow pie.
"We're just not the martyred figure that he was," she continues. "The man just worked around the clock, had no time off, and worked for peanuts. In this day and age, we just can't be that martyred figure anymore. We have to say: look, we have to charge more and we're worth it and here's why. I think in a firm voice, an advocate for the indebted veterinarian needs to happen."

So, maybe James Herriot did have a few crazy horse ladies to deal with (and sounds like some crazy pig owners and cattle owners and dog owners thrown in there, too) but one thing's for certain: he wasn't competing with Dr. Google. Perhaps the vets of today are to James Herriot what apples are to oranges. Yeah, we're all a little fruity, but there are now fundamental differences in the way we are cultivated and what we are exposed to.

Looking to the future is sometimes the most exciting thing to a writer, with the possibilities just multiplying on the horizon right in front of your eyes. For Courtney, oh yeah--she's got plans. A second book on her vet adventures is two-thirds written and a fiction book about anthropomorphic animals is in draft as well. Courtney has also started a monthly column in the magazine Horse Illustrated called "Vet Adventures." Of course she continues to practice as well, allowing for a continual production line of experiences to draw on for future book chapters, columns, and other venues.

Stay tuned for the next blog, Monday, March 16.

Monday, February 16, 2015

An Artist Among Us

For the first installment of the newly reinvigorated and refocused VetWrite blog, I had the privilege to chat with a wonderfully creative veterinarian, Dr. Dean Scott. Dean is the creator of, and more to the point, a cartoonist. Some of you might be familiar with his art, as it makes its way across the web.
Originally from Orlando, Dean likes to say he survived vet school at UC-Davis and graduated in 1993. A general feeling of lack of support left him and his fellow students floundering in a sea of disinterested clinicians. "I found vet school harder than it needed to be, which is the best way to say it," Dean says. "It seemed like: hey, we got you to school and now good luck."

Fortunately, some vet schools now seem to have recognized the need for support for the very students they cultivate. This and the shift in student body population from primarily male to primarily female are some of the interesting ways that make today's vet schools in the US not the vet schools of yesteryear, which would make for a fascinating retrospective commentary in and of itself, but we digress.

The good thing about Dean's vet school experience--other than it allowing him to reach his childhood dream of being a vet--was that it honed his creative skills. He had fodder for doodles which became cartoons and two books. He had material and a method of therapy. Turns out, vet school is comedic gold.

Dean actually started drawing in 1988, prior to entry into vet school, when he was working at a small animal clinic. "It was a very small practice and I decided to put together some cartoons about things that happened in the practice and they really liked it."

Once in vet school, a small handful of drawings grew into collections. "Vet school was rife with material," Dean says. "During lectures I would doodle and make jokes in the margin of the syllabus. I just sort of wrote stuff down and it went from there." During Dean's junior year, he created a list called 1000 Vet School Stresses. Picking the best off this list, Dean had his first book, From the Back Row.

The late Dr. Sophia Yin was in Dean's class. "She had Cattle Dog Publishing and she was kind enough to throw me a bone, so to speak, and she published my first book." Another reminder that the vet world is a small, delicate world, friends. Let's keep each other close and take care of each other.

This brings us to an interesting tangent into the publishing world, a theme I'd like to explore deeper as these blogs continue. Dean cuts right to the chase when he describes his struggles of finding a publisher for his comedic vet material. "It's really hard. People understand text books but people do not seem to understand humor books in the veterinary profession." The responses he received from numerous publishers for this first book were lukewarm, at best. There simply was no interest.

"A lot of publishers, even if they do veterinary books, they don't do humor. Think about how few people that you can point to that do humor in the veterinary profession. What I see in our profession is that we need to lighten up."

So it's not just a question of how to get our work published. It's a statement of need. "I think at least in part, we deal with a lot of suffering," says Dean. "We shoulder a great deal of burden and we put that burden on ourselves a lot. I think we need to give ourselves a little bit of a break. I think there's a need out there for acknowledging how difficult things are without being morose about it."

Given that, Dean has been incredibly prolific. Hundreds of his cartoons are cataloged on his website; he's recently written a sequel to From the Back Row, Vet Med Spread; published a series called The Incomplete Dog Book on Smashwords; blogs; has a YouTube channel; creates his own vet-related graphics and designs for shirts and signs on Cafepress; and he still cartoons, publishing new ones on his website regularly.

Dean speaks on how to find time for your creative outlets. "Regardless of what profession you do, I think everyone has something in them that needs some kind of expression. I would never have thought cartooning of myself. I have no training. It just grew as an outlet. I think everyone has that. You do it for yourself first and you should never look at what you do as, oh, that's not good enough. It's not a matter of whether it's good enough. It's a matter of: it's what you do, it's how you express yourself.

"You have to make time [to be creative]. As vets, we are geared to do anything and everything animal all the time and if you have something else that gives you energy, you should go do that also. You do have to put a little internal pressure on yourself, but hopefully it's not the same kind of pressure that your clients put on you. But when you sit down and do it, it's relaxing, you find your brain playing with stuff. You have to give your brain play time."

Given the amount of cartoons Dean has produced over more than two decades, it's understandably difficult for him to have a favorite. "I like a lot of them, they're like children to me," he says. Fans, however, tend to have a standout favorite. "Everyone likes what I call the Boo Boo cartoon," says Dean. "It shows a veterinarian on the phone. You can't see his face because he has his hand on his forehead and he's saying: 'No Mrs. Smith, I don't think it would be helpful to put Boo Boo on the phone. Oh, hey Boo Boo.' Everyone loves that cartoon."

Stay tuned. Monday, March 2 is the next post.