The professor was well into her introductory remarks when I trudged into the room. Making sure to avoid her glare, I mumbled an apology: “It was the first physio lab of the semester and I didn’t know where the laboratory was”, and took a seat. I scanned the words on the board. There was so much writing, the ink infested whiteboard looking like a mad palette.
“The particular objectives of this experiment are to study the compound action potential… Construct a strength/duration curve of the nerve… study the characteristics of the frog’s sciatic nerve.”
That seemed interesting enough. A highlight reel of all the labs I’d done until that point would put anyone to sleep. Working with an animal implied something more exciting, something verifiable, and most importantly, different than the dull and tedious test tube work I’d grown accustomed to.
It wasn’t long until the prep talk was over and the professor left the room, presumably to get the frog.
We all huddled around her work station, sheepish smiles acting as a façade for the anticipation. Before long she was back, frog in hand, and carefully placed it on what looked like a weathered cutting board.
“The frog sciatic nerve dissection is a delicate operation. During the dissection, the nerve must not be touched…”
Operation? Wait, what. Did I miss a memo? I thought this was like show and tell.
Should’ve listened carefully when she was talking.
It was then that she inserted the pithing needle through the skull of the frog, destroying its brain and spinal cord, all while the animal made limp attempts at movement. Putting the frog on its back in the dissecting tray, she began skinning it. After that, an incision was made into the thin wall of the skin coating its viscera which brought the spinal cord and emerging sciatic nerve in plain view. The nerve was then delicately freed from its surrounding tissues via forceps and put in a tube.
All this we watched with a gross fascination. This is what med school is all about right? The hands on approach, where there’s just no alternative to seeing the insides of an animal first hand than on a piece of paper. That’s what I thought as I prepared myself to play doctor on my very own frog.
I won’t sugarcoat how I felt at that time; I was pleasantly intrigued. Not by the skinning or pithing, but the science of it all. As I delicately maneuvered my scalpel around the frog’s insides, I was Derek Shepherd. Gone were the hours spent on the physiology textbook, those anatomy PowerPoint presentations and the histology coursework. This was real. The organs I’d only seen in depictions until that time were right in front of me, cementing what I had learnt and adding so much more to what I didn’t know.
Working with a living animal gave me a glimpse of how it would be to deal with a human being. Killing the frog was the means to an end. I rather iron out any glitches I have and practice with surgical instruments now than make any mistakes when I’m dealing with real people.
After all, animal research and testing has resulted in breakthroughs in knowledge on so many fronts. It has increased our understanding of the Malaria lifecycle, tuberculosis and Typhus just to name a few. All of this wouldn’t have been possible if testing hadn’t been carried out on pigeons, dogs, cats, and various other animals.
Nevertheless, it didn’t feel right. Isn’t the life of an animal, a life as well? Aren’t they also capable of feeling pain? The same frogs that we were dissecting were the same species of animal that are someone’s pet.
Before this, I had never aimlessly killed a living creature. I rationalized what I had to do in that experiment because medicine is the path I have chosen, and working with animals is just part and parcel of the deal. However, in this modern day and age of technology, couldn’t we have just watched a video of a frog being dissected, of its nerves being isolated? Surely we could’ve avoided killing so many of these animals.
Hours later, playing the lab over again in my head, I felt disgusted at having killed a living creature just for the sake of getting a few lab results. Surely, I’ll never be asked to pith a human being, to skin it. Killing a frog has got absolutely nothing to do with me becoming a good doctor.
And therein lies the key to this issue, one that helped me justify this practice to myself.
I, as a student of medicine am going to have to deal with human lives. Philosophy aside, to me, there is nothing more precious than a person’s life.
Killing a frog doesn’t make me a good doctor, but knowing how to work a scalpel does, familiarity with living organisms does. And most importantly, isolating that part of me, the part that flinches when it sees blood, that cringes at the sight of pain, the part that retches at the thought of slicing open a living being, will definitely make me a good doctor.
I’m not arguing against empathy and compassion. I find them both to be integral in the making of a good physician, neither am I advocating for an apathetic view towards experimenting with animals.
Not every doctor goes into surgery, and there are some physicians who don’t even work with patients in person. I just believe that emotional attachment in excess can distort the judgment of someone in our profession.
Perhaps the aim of this experiment wasn’t to study the action potential in a frog’s nerve. Perhaps it was to teach us that in this profession, tough decisions will have to be made and it’s imperative that one has the mental and emotional strength to deal with such situations.
These are things that you just can’t learn in books and videos.