Art and veterinary medicine at the crossroads

Veterinarian uses artistic skills to better the profession
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In one of the nooks of Western University College of Veterinary Medicine, you will find a supply of plastic, rubber, metal, and wood; saws and instruments for manipulating them; and molds for casting the materials. This laboratory is where Dr. Ben Kitchen toils, designing models to teach WesternU's veterinary students the skills they will need in practice. It is aptly named the Learning Tool Development Laboratory. 

On any given day, you may find Dr. Kitchen bent over a workbench, wrapping foam and rubber around wood to simulate a thorax that students can use to practice thoracic tube insertion, or skillfully creating animal joints out of piping. Paints are used for finishing touches. Dr. Kitchen creates anatomically correct models, some to serve as visual references to teach anatomy, and others on which students can practice procedures. Most of his time, however, is spent designing abstract models he calls learning tools, which students use to acquire basic clinical skills. He creates three to six of these learning tools per week.

Although other veterinary schools are incorporating models into their curricula, WesternU has gone a step further to include models for teaching not just procedures, but basic clinical skills as well. Dr. Rosemary LoGiudice, assistant director of the AVMA Membership and Field Services Division and Student AVMA adviser, recently visited WesternU, which is located in Pomona, Calif. "What is neat to me is that Dr. Kitchen, who is a veterinarian, is developing the models on-site for use by veterinary students and veterinarians in continuing education situations," she said.

Dr. Kitchen says WesternU defines clinical skills as "the components of a clinical procedure that allow one to perform it well." Those can be broken down into four groups. Psychomotor skills include strength, force control, coordination, and fine motor control. Pattern recognition, three-dimensional visualization, and peripheral perception are perception skills. Behavior skills include attention to detail, focus during distraction and stress, working cooperatively, startle control, and interpersonal communication. And examples of knowledge skills are tactile and visual knowledge of anatomy and standard operating procedure know-how.

The college, which just opened its doors this past fall, emphasizes lifelong learning. It's not just about learning particular procedures. "Our goal is to give (the students) the foundation (and) universal skills that will allow them to approach a novel procedure in the future and be able to acquire the abilities to do that procedure," Dr. Kitchen said.

The lifespan of learning tools varies, but can span several semesters. Models that have to be cut and sewn may have to be replaced after a handful of uses.

One learning tool looks like a box, according to WesternU student Avery Woodworth. The inside, however, is a virtual digestive tract, composed of various materials, including balloons filled with sand and pebbles. "You can stick your hand into a model like you are doing a rectal exam," she said. "You are basically reaching into a box, but he has mimicked it so that (it is) as if you are reaching into a small canal. You are trying to get some tactile (knowledge of the digestive tract)."

Some learning tools are outfitted with various feedback devices. "If you insert a needle into something, it buzzes if you are not controlling it properly, that sort of thing," Dr. Kitchen explained. In another model, liquid squirts out if not handled properly. Students can gain considerable experience before beginning to treat an animal.

"We also do wellness rotations, where we see animals for basic wellness care," Avery said. "If we are not comfortable using an otoscope, for example, because we don't know how far in to go with the otoscope, then we go over and use the model to see how far we go in, how hard we need to push."

Another WesternU student, Karen Eiler, says the models have impressed her. "I was a technician for a few years, so I know a lot of the skill you need for vascular access, the basic things like fine motor control and control of force," Eiler said. "It is interesting to me that the motor skills that you need in order to do some of the techniques on a live animal can be developed in other ways."

Besides the learning tools, Dr. Kitchen's anatomic models for practicing medical procedures have also been a big hit. Through an equine joint simulator, students learn the procedure of arthrocentesis of the carpus. A movable model of a horse head has wooden blocks and one can practice floating teeth.

The models allow students to hone their skills in an environment where they don't have to worry about harming an animal or themselves. "My favorite one is the horse limb," Eiler said. "I don't have much experience being around horses, so to me, it is very valuable to practice the technique of bandaging and learning the right way to wrap. It is modeled to look like a horse leg, so you are really looking for your landmarks and orienting yourself on it."

While the learning tools aren't particularly eye-grabbing, the anatomic models are fit to be displayed as works of fine art. It's not surprising, given Dr. Kitchen's circuitous route to veterinary school. He has a bachelor's degree of fine arts in painting and a master's of fine arts in sculpture. Before entering The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, he taught sculpture at the University of Notre Dame for several years and created animal sculptures. They revolve around how society perceives animals and relationships between humans and animals.

As an undergraduate, he had been pursuing a preveterinary curriculum, but his love of art initially won out. Teaching at Notre Dame, however, didn't fully satisfy him. "I got an attack of altruism and decided that I needed to get back to veterinary medicine and try to do something of practical value for animals," Dr. Kitchen said.

In veterinary school, he hooked up with Dr. Dan Smeak, an OSU surgeon who was also interested in creating models, and they worked together. Ohio State students use some latex models of skin and organs for perfecting suture techniques, but they primarily use cadavers.

Dr. Kitchen came to WesternU after posts in private practice and at a humane society, and doing veterinary relief work. And at the newest (provisionally) accredited veterinary college, things seem to have come full circle for him. He gets to do art and veterinary medicine.

So, is Dr. Kitchen producing models for other schools? "At this time, we are not," he said. "We have our hands full with our own curriculum, but the ultimate goal would be to have this available to all curriculums if (schools are) interested."

To learn more, contact Dr. Kitchen at (909) 469-5556.