How Two Weeks of Necropsy Reminded Me to be Thankful [Clinics Series]

Our necropsy block is widely recognized as an easy block during which you trade the unpleasant business of cutting open dead animals for the opportunity to be done with your responsibilities as early as 10am and as late as 3pm.  I don’t really like dissecting dead bodies.  They smell, blood gets everywhere, and I have enough back problems without spending 4 hours a day bending over tables of variable heights.  That being said, I do appreciate the appeal of necropsy.  There’s something nice about being able to go from, “We’re not sure why your dog is sick, it could be any one of these 10 diseases,” to “Your dog is sick because there’s an enormous carcinoma in his stomach.”  There’s a sense of closure.  You can LOOK at the problem and know definitively what’s wrong.  Sometimes.  Other times you finish the necropsy and you still have no clue why the animal was sick.

As an aside, I’m choosing to use the word ‘necropsy’ despite the insistence of our veterinary pathologists to use the word ‘autopsy.’  My understanding is that veterinary pathologists want to use the word autopsy because that’s the word used in human medicine, and because the procedure is the same, regardless of species, we should all be using the same word.  I don’t disagree with the premise, but ‘auto’ means self.  While I can concede that in human medicine you’re at least performing the procedure on an individual who is your same species, even if it isn’t actually on yourself, it doesn’t make sense to me to call it autopsy if you’re performing it on a dog.  I am not a dog.  Personally, I think we should just call them all necropsies, since ‘necro’ means death and they’re all dead when the evaluation occurs, but no one asked me.  Bottom line, next time you’re at a cocktail party with a veterinary pathologist, you can win points for being in the know if you use the word autopsy.

So I don’t particularly like the subject, but there were a LOT of moments I found to pause and be thankful.  First off, because we finished by 3pm every day the first week and by 12pm every day the second week, we had lots of free time.  In those two weeks, I caught up with friends on three different occasions, had a friend and her partner over for dinner, met with our career counselor, took my dog to a vet appointment, went to the dentist, got a massage, went to a community theater performance with my partner, and caught up on a ton of other errands.

Furthermore, I was repeatedly thankful that there are people out there who genuinely enjoy performing necropsies.   This means that for the rest of my career, I can let those lovely people do the necropsies and I can spend my time doing other things.  I came to a slightly more nuanced version of this point on Tuesday of the second week, when we came in to discover that there were no animals to be necropsied, and instead we spent two hours in a conference room reviewing pictures of previous cases.  It’s probably no surprise that I would have preferred to just go home early, but as I sat there, I thought of my classmates who want to be pathologists, and how if they had been on this block, and they came in to find that there weren’t any cases to necropsy in person, they would probably still want to discuss cases.  If I arrived on campus during my theriogenology block (my preferred specialty), and found that we didn’t have any cases for the day, I would still want to sit around and discuss theriogenology.  How incredible that I’ve found something I love so much that I would want to spend my free time discussing it, even if I didn’t have to!

However, the strongest wave of gratitude happened during an equine necropsy in the first few days of the block.  I had just cut into the stomach, and along with the normal semi-digested grass and fluid, specks of bright orange tumbled onto the table.  My heart dropped as I realized that those orange flecks were carrots.  Instantly, I could see an image of a girl my age hugging this pony’s neck, feeding him carrots as his last meal while her tears soaked his mane.  I held back tears of my own as they snuck, unbidden, into my eyes.  No crying on the necropsy floor.  But in that moment I was thankful.  Thankful that people trust veterinarians to take care of their loved ones.  Thankful that when their horse couldn’t be cured, these people loved him enough to feed him carrots as his last meal and let him go peacefully.  Thankful that my own pets and family members are healthy.  Aware that their health isn’t something I should take for granted.  It reminded me that, even though I didn’t particularly want to be there, somewhere nearby was the heartbroken human who loved this horse, and it was my responsibility to honor his life with attention to detail in his death.

This post is part of a series documenting my clinical year in veterinary school.  To read more from the series, please visit the Clinic Series homepage.


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