Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Amazing Dr. B

Back in the day, I groomed racehorses for a living. This was an excellent job in many ways, not least of which being that I got paid decent money to be in fabulous shape. But I also learned my way around a wheelbarrow and developed a useful deftness at setting wraps on the highly valuable legs of my charges. I got so I could pitch manure accurately from the back of a stall into a wheelbarrow parked in the stall door, balance 7 bales of hay on a barrow and hop it over the sill of a barn door without dumping bales all over the shed row, pick out all four feet speedily and well without having to move from the left side of the horse, and any number of other useful things, such as how not to accidentally flip a rearing horse, how to carry two full five-gallon buckets of water rapidly down the barn aisle without spilling any, and (less usefully) how to comb pretty patterns into your horse's rump hair so she looks spiffy going to the post.

One of the useful things about being pretty handy with a pitchfork was that, during vet school, I made extra money mucking out the horse barns at the hospital. This was a different proposition in some ways than racehorse grooming - for one thing, there were a lot more stalls, and for another, there was no grooming involved. Moreover, mucking out happened in the afternoon and evening, rather than before the crack of dawn, and usually the horses were still in the stalls, rather than out breezing at the track. The pace was slower in that sense - I didn't have to get the stall mucked, the buckets hung, the next horse brushed and tacked, and the next stall started by the time the first horse came back from the track, steaming and blowing and needing a fast bath and a good cool-down. On the other hand, there were a lot more stalls to get through. Moreover, instead of pitching the stalls out into a wheelbarrow stationed in the doorway to the stall, the straw and manure had to be pitched over the top of the wall into a dumpster that was wheeled down the shed rows as we moved from stall to stall. It took a little while to develop speed and accuracy with this technique, but before long I found the rhythm of it.

This job lasted only during my junior year; in senior year there was really no time for that, as I often had rotations in the evening, or at night, or extremely early in the morning. However, I learned a little about the rhythm of medicine in the barn; we worked, of necessity, around senior vet students and clinicians doing treatments and taking in late cases. I, at least, got a sense of the clinicians; which ones were even-tempered, which were more fiery, which ones were so deeply intimidating that they scared the living crap out of the students.

Even though I tracked small animal - meaning I took the majority of my senior-year rotations in small animal medicine and surgery - I did do some equine rotations. This was always fun; equine ambulatory was like an all-day field trip, going from farm to farm, taking X-rays, stitching things up, drawing blood, treating colics, checking on delicate foals. I also did an equine anesthesia rotation (scary and exciting, but sometimes very sad), and an equine medicine rotation. This was run by Dr. B.

Dr. B amazed me at the very start of junior year. I was walking down the hall one day, minding my own business, and he happened to be ambling toward me down the hall. Dr. B looks like an old farm boy: Tall, loose-limbed but sturdy, grey hair buzzed down in a short crew cut, and possessed of twinkly grey eyes surrounded by lines earned through laughing and squinting into the sun, set in a square, good-natured face. All his visible skin was burned to a deep ruddy bronze, from the back of his neck to his broad, capable hands. He was of indeterminate age, but I assumed he was somewhere in his 50's at the time, and he looked - and was - entirely amiable. But on that day, his customary pleasant schoolboy grin was replaced for a moment with a frown of concentration. Seeing me (for the first time in my memory) from the end of the hall, he narrowed his eyes for a moment and then called me by name, startling me to a standstill.

"Did I get that right?" he asked.

"Well, yes," I said, wondering how. He merely smiled at me and continued on his way. It turns out that Dr. B took the trouble, every year, of memorising the faces and names of every member of each incoming junior class. He did this by means of our vet school student directory, which had microscopic thumbnail photos - in black and white - and our names and contact information, in case someone at the school (another student or a faculty member) should need to reach us. How he managed this without actually going blind from staring at the small, grainy pictures, I'm not exactly sure. Moreover, the pictures were taken on the first day of orientation Freshman year, and not changed throughout vet school to reflect different hairstyles, the acquisition of glasses or contact lenses, addition or subtraction of facial hair, or any other changes. In my own case, this gave me pause; a friend of mine pointed out - with more glee than strictly necessary, I assure you - that, me having worn a dark blue tank top that day, and having my long dark hair hanging over my shoulders covering up the shoulder straps of said tank top, it appeared in my photo that I might in fact be naked.

Oh, goody. JUST the impression I was hoping to make. Not.

At any rate, when I went on barn rotations in senior year, Dr. B turned out not to just be amazing at remembering faces and names. He was a good clinician, and a good teacher. He put students on the spot, sure; but he did it without criticizing or scaring them, and used the pressure to encourage learning and diligence. His manner around horses was always calm, direct and matter-of fact; I never saw him lose his temper with even the most fractious horse. This is a knack that not everyone has, and it's one I admired. He was also a cut-to-the-chase sort of person, making decisions and directing treatment with a minimum of fuss, and disinclined to take three steps where one step would do the job properly. To which end I one day saw him scoop up and carry, preacher's curl-style, a foal that had to weigh a hundred and fifty pounds or more. The foal's mobility was a problem, and rather than go twiddle about with a gurney - which foals are disinclined to view trustfully - he just scooped the horse up and carried him, without any evident strain, to a stall. No muss, no fuss. This was startling enough in its own right, but for some reason he'd removed both his clinic jacket and his shirt, doubtless due to inundation with some unsavory secretion. Dr. B had what we used to call a farmer's tan - one that ended at the limits of what would be covered by a T-shirt. That was no surprise, but it turned out that Dr. B's natural skin color was as fair and white as milk, a startling contrast to his otherwise red-brown hue. He looked like he'd been painted. While I was distracted by the blinding whiteness thus exposed, two (female) students behind me, likewise arrested, stopped and stared.

"Whoa, check out the arms on Dr. B," one of them said with marked approbation.

"Oh, yeah," said the other, and they giggled like schoolgirls with a crush on the football captain. I couldn't help thinking that it was a good thing Dr. B was out of earshot; he struck me as the type to be embarrassed by that kind of thing, and he was such a good-natured sort that you'd hate to see that happen, even if it was meant in a complimentary way. On the other hand, there was no faulting their observations. Dr. B was in shocking good form for a man half his age. Or his presumed age, since he had one of those kind of weather-beaten faces that seems always to be the same age, no matter what his actual years.

The other students regained their decorum completely by the time Dr. B returned (with a fresh clinic coat on), and we turned to our next case. This turned out to be a horse that needed to be hospitalised in the vet school's barn.

"Okay, we need to set up a stall," Dr. B told us, "which means you'll have to go get some straw - "

"I'll get it," I volunteered, well-acquainted as I was with the inner workings of the barn. Dr. B looked at me in surprise. "I know where the straw and the wheelbarrows are," I added by way of explanation.

"How do you know that?" he asked me.

"I used to muck out in the afternoons," I said.

"Oh, right," Dr. B said, his expression clearing. Then he frowned. "Now that you mention it, I remember seeing you at it. I wonder why I didn't recognize you from that?"

"Probably because I haven't got shit all over me," I said without thinking.

The entire rotation goggled at me. Dr. B's eyes popped open wide for a second. Suddenly he started laughing, but I couldn't help but notice that he was suddenly turning a dark beet red. Kind of like I am now, remembering it.

"Er... sorry," I added, abashed. Dr. B kept laughing for a long time as he walked back to the treatment area, but in a way that made me think I'd really rather embarrassed him. Not enough to keep him from finding it funny, mind you, but enough to make him lose his composure completely. I felt rather bad about that - it was impossible not to respect Dr. B for his skills and intelligence, nor to like him for his air of being an innocent, good-hearted farm boy, earnest and diligent and kind. He never tried to make anyone feel stupid, and if you were unprepared, you were more inclined to feel that you'd disappointed someone you wanted to please than you were to feel judged or scolded. It was a useful knack for a teacher to have, and probably made nearly every student work three times harder so as not to disappoint him. I would never in a million years have intentionally distressed Dr. B - so I can only hope that he's forgotten that incident entirely.

Wish I had.


MaskedMan said...

Oh, I can so totally hear you saying that, in that snappy, tart voice you use when popping out a zinger.

Somehow, I doubt Dr. B has completely forgotten the incident. On the other hand, I'm fairly confident he'd remember it with humor, not embarasment. I know, in similar situation, that's how *I* would remember it! But perhaps I'm a bad example, having grown up in close contact with your sense of humor.

Anyway, it's good for teachers to get their expectations bounced about a bit - Keeps them looking at the students with fresh eyes.

Holly said...

what a lovely story from school. Dr. B is the kind of teacher that every student should encounter at least once....if only to have a good teacher to compare the others to.

"He never tried to make anyone feel stupid,"

you learned that lesson well, didn't you?

AKDD said...

MM, how well you know me. (And how scary is THAT? You poor thing.) I never mean to be sarcastic, but sometimes I'm a bit... well, tart is probably the right word. I think I'm a bit warped by having been reared on Brittish humor. At any rate, it's not the MOST embarrassing thing I ever said to a professor, but it might be in the top ten. The quick retort can be entertaining, but there are times when I really SHOULD edit before I speak.

Holly, how kind of you to say I'm not trying to make people feel stupid. I really DO try to avoid that - after all, it took me a long time to learn what I know about medicine (and a bunch of other things), and often a great deal of effort as well - so I really really do NOT expect that everyone should automatically know these things. It also becomes more and more clear to me, the longer I do this, how much more there is that I do NOT know, so I'm in no position to be lording it over anyone. But there are times when I worry that I'm being too acerbic. I worry that my sense of the ridiculous might be a little too sharp at times - so I appreciate that comment.

Dragon43 said...

Wonderful as usual. and yes, everyone should get at least one teacher like that.

As to reading these stories, for me is almost like a sough after class and you are that kind of teacher.