Watch out – the patient bites. Second year veterinary students discuss Betsy
the cat’s medical symptoms during WSU’s Diagnostic Challenges. (Photos by Shelly
Hanks, WSU Photo Services)
 
 
PULLMAN, Wash. – Your first-ever patient is Max, a 75 pound wolf hybrid, low on energy and exhibiting only one testicle. Max’s owner is deployed in Afghanistan, so his bewildered mother brought Max in to see you. She calls you “Doctor.” Although you do look like one – in a crisp white coat with shiny stethoscope – you’re a student at Washington State University.
 
And Max is a big stuffed animal. His symptoms, however, are ones that veterinarians see in the real world. What questions do you ask the owner’s mother? Which tests should you order for Max? What if the mother can’t afford them?
What if she cries?
 
Human skills, science skills
 
Welcome to step one of Diagnostic Challenges, a series of clinical exercises where WSU’s second-year veterinary students become “doctors” for four days. In its 20th year, the DC plucks students away from science books and immerses them in clinical settings with pretend sick pets and their pretend caregivers played by volunteers. Students are evaluated by real veterinarians seated behind one-way windows of an adjoining room.
 
In each case, the challenges posed to students are to communicate well with the caregiver, find out what’s wrong with the pet and then determine the best treatment plan, said DC organizer Steve Hines, WSU professor of veterinary microbiology and pathology.
“As second-year students, they’ve been sitting in classes and labs and they’re book smart. Our aim is to also help them become good problem solvers and good communicators,” he said.
Hines created the program in 1991 with Guy Palmer, director of WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. Each year, they recruit “actors” from WSU and the community to serve as pet caregivers.
But others must take planes to get here.
 
Alumni participate to give back

Peter Vellutini, left, Linda Fineman and Kyle Frandle
are veterinarians practicing in California who graduated
from WSU’s veterinary school and return each year
as Diagnostic Challenges facilitators.
Suzanne Russo, a veterinarian with Pfizer Animal Health, flew from San Francisco to play pet owner to a 9-year-old cat named Betsy (student groups don’t know the actors’ true identities until later). Clutching the stuffed toy cat to her chest, she told the five students seated around her that Betsy had spent the past three days sleeping under the bed and not eating.
Oh, and by the way, Betsy bit a veterinarian once, so be careful, Russo warned the students.

Oh, and one more thing, Russo told them – Betsy recently brought home a dead bat. A clue or a red herring? That’s for the students to figure out.

Later in the week, Russo gave students feedback on how they did, as did Hines, who served as their professional facilitator.

 
The facilitators are faculty members from the College of Veterinary Medicine, along with alumni veterinarians who leave their practices to assist with the DC, said Hines.
 
Learning your limitations
One of them is Peter Vellutini, here from the Sacramento area for his sixth time as facilitator – a big change from 2001 when he participated as a veterinary student. His first challenge, coincidentally, was the wolf hybrid scenario used this year.

“I was definitely nervous,” Vellutini recalled. “It’s a dramatic change from the classroom setting where you are listening to endless lectures and memorizing information.”

But the experience was so valuable that Vellutini repeatedly participates as a facilitator, he said.

“I try to make their experience as real-life as possible and pass along some of the knowledge and tools that I have found helpful as a practicing veterinarian,” he said.

 
Another returning facilitator is Linda Fineman, a 1992 alumnus who works as a veterinary oncologist in California’s Silicon Valley. During the DC, she tries to teach students how to communicate compassionately and how to say, “I don’t know,” she said.
“Learning what your personal limitations are in terms of experience and knowledge is one of the fundamental skills needed to be a good veterinarian,” said Fineman.
 
More popular, more loved
 
People in the U.S. own roughly 82 million cats, 72 million dogs, 43 million birds and 11 million horses, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association – not to mention the countless hamsters, rabbits, pet snakes and turtles.
And so, masses of pet owners are wanting top-notch medical care, said Kyle Frandle, a 1980 WSU veterinary graduate who runs a large dog and cat hospital in Los Gatos, Calif.
“Pets have become a more integral part of people’s lives and their bond can be profound,” said Frandle, back for his 10th year as a DC facilitator.
“Our focus is on the pet, but a good veterinarian never loses sight of the fact that we work in a people profession,” he said. “We want to get this across to students early in their training. Believe me, it will benefit them.”