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Making a pig’s ear of things

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WE’VE had several vet students on EMS placement recently – 10 in the last two months, in fact – and their differing abilities to learn basic skills has been quite striking. Some pick up the essence of a task quickly, such as setting up a drip for example, while others require the same task to be explained to them three or four times and then still struggle to remember what to do.

This started me pondering on how we learn something, and a friend who is an educational psychologist explained that we all learn in different ways and at different speeds. Not that this is necessarily a problem, but it is essential that all vets qualify with a good grasp of what are known as ‘day-one competencies’, and retain them such that they can function capably in general practice.

However, very little in this world is perfect, and that includes theories on how we learn and retain knowledge.

This became very clear to me recently with some new additions to our household. My older daughter has always wanted some pigs, and for her 16th birthday I agreed, slightly reluctantly, that this might be possible. My wife was not overly keen, but suffice to say that last month I found myself driving many miles to collect two female minipigs sourced via the internet; Rosebud and Snowball were soon ensconced in a small sty at the bottom of our garden. My daughter was delighted, my wife commented on how well-behaved they were, and all seemed good at first.

I was therefore dismayed to be met by an agitated spouse when I returned home from work one evening last week. ‘Snowball’s a boy’, she shrieked, explaining that she had just noticed two large spherical objects at his rear end, and although I expressed my disbelief (‘I’m sure it’s just fat, dear’), a clinical examination confirmed that unfortunately she was correct. Despite the farmer’s assurances that both piglets were female, I had failed to spot there was something amiss; as my wife noted wryly, there was little doubt that I had bought a pig in a poke. ‘Didn’t they teach you anything at vet school?’, she demanded, not unreasonably, and I had to admit that gender recognition in common domestic species was usually a de facto skill expected of all vet students.

I won’t bore you with further details, other than to say that after some time refreshing certain sections of my undergraduate education (namely, porcine anatomy and anaesthesia), Snowball is undoubtedly the only pig in the UK this year to have been castrated with the surgeon fully gowned and gloved and two vet nurses in attendance, along with a sterile kit and drapes, dissolvable sutures and systemic analgesia. Several vet students, watching with interest, also questioned why I hadn’t spotted the discrepancy between the two pigs when I bought them!

Fortunately, the patient made a full recovery and is none the worse for it (although for obvious reasons he does now get called Noballs). While I trust that the students I have on EMS placement will eventually acquire all the necessary skills they need for a professional career, I emphasise to them that even when you think you know it all, if you don’t concentrate, you can very easily end up making a pig’s ear of things. Or should that be another part of its anatomy?

If you would like to contribute to ‘A practitioner ponders’, please e-mail vet.inpractice@bmj.com for further information. We pay a small honorarium for contributions that are published.

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