Jeffrey Abbott was terrified of failing when he participated in the fourth ever Diagnostic Challenge at Washington State University in the fall of 1994.

Now headed into its 30th year, Dr. Abbott will take the reins of the program from its founder Dr. Steve Hines.

Twenty-six years since his own Diagnostic Challenge, Abbott is looking forward to watching students, in the same seats he once sat, face an all-to-familiar fear.

“Whenever I’ve failed, I remember, and it makes a big impact. When everything went perfectly, you don’t remember those things for long,” Abbott said. “The one thing about the DCs that facilitates learning is failure. The beauty of it is they’re not expected to always get it right.”

The DCs – a series of simulated case-based exercises featuring a stuffed patient, volunteer client, and facilitator with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine to aid the group, provides students the opportunity to diagnose an animal and treat its condition – or in some cases, even walk a pet owner through a terminal diagnosis.

The four-day course is the first case for veterinary students at WSU.

“They’re learning to communicate with a client while working through a case,” Abbott said. “Where else are they going to learn that before dealing with an actual client?”

Student to facilitator

Abbott, who recently made his return to WSU, admits he was unsure about the DCs as a student.

“To be honest, I was really skeptical about the touchy-feely stuff and learning how to communicate,” he said. “I was one of the ones in the back row.”

He quickly recognized the value during his first case.

“I learned how to communicate with a client while working through a problem clinically,” Abbott said. “Students want to use all the fancy doctor words they know when they talk to their client, but the clients don’t understand that jargon. You have to be able to explain the science in terms a client can understand.”

As a WSU resident in both comparative anatomical pathology and veterinary immunology, Abbott volunteered in the program after graduating from WSU in 1997.

Then, for 10 of the past 16 years, he traveled to Pullman from his former faculty position at the University of Florida to volunteer as a facilitator.

At UF, Abbott was credited with helping to start a Teaching Academy similar to that at WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He won the student-nominated Teacher of the Year Award eight times.

Abbott said teaching is his passion, but he’d be lying if he didn’t feel pressure taking over for Hines.

“Here I am coming in, no one knows who I am. I’m not a giant in the field of teaching, and I’m nowhere near the stature of Steve Hines, but I know first-hand how important the DCs are for our students,” he said. “I’m willing to give everything I can offer, and my favorite thing to do is teach.”

He said he, Hines, and Rachel Halsey are preparing manuscripts to document the DCs and the benefits to veterinary students and facilitators.

“We want it in the literature,” Abbott said.

Coming home

Abbott said he is excited for his return to the stillness of the Palouse and the energy of WSU.

He said it is a nice change of pace from UF’s more than 60,000 students.

“I feel like we’re a family here,” he said.

Abbott spent more than 11 years in Pullman pursuing his education.

Three of his four children – Kaitlin, 26; Brian, 23; and Ethan, 19 – were born at Pullman Memorial Hospital, once located on the WSU campus.

“Here I see the faculty playing basketball together and going on hikes together. They are a support group and a family, not everyone has that,” he said. “A community like this makes a huge difference.”