Grand Opening: The Pawcurious Surgical Training Centre

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So, every year I attempt some form of creative teaching enterprise at the kids’ school, and some years go better than others. This year, in a school I really like, I think things went well. I was asked to do a “veterinary science station” for the annual Science Fair, and I thought back to what I was excited about when I was a kid:


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Playing with guts! And I thought to myself, I bet I could create a dog version of this anatomical model. So I went to Joann’s, bought a bunch of random attachments and fabric bits, and commandeered one of my daughter’s stuffed animals to volunteer to be my surgical model.

Step one: preparing the abdominal cavity

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I chose a mottled red fabric for the interior of the dog, and sewed a pouch to contain the abdominal organs. After cutting open a midline incision, I removed a bit of stuffing then sewed in a zipper. (Do this before sewing the pouch in, or you’ll end up with the zipper seam showing.) Then you can sew the top ends of the pouch to the edges of your incision and voila!

Step two: making organs

You can go kind of crazy with this stuff, but I tried to hold myself back to the main parts (no spleen, pancreas, etc). All of the organs were secured to the abdominal wall with Velcro so they would remain in the right place but they could be removed if the kids really wanted to see what was in there.

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I tried to keep the organs moderately accurate, but I was limited by my own sewing experience and what I had on hand, which is how I wound up with lavender sparkly kidneys and a two-lobed liver. For the bladder we filled a white balloon with rice. The kids don’t care too much about accuracy.

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The intestines were a long tube of velour that I sewed and then had to turn inside-out. I didn’t think that one through ahead of time. I debated leaving it a giant intussusception but I eventually got it figured out with actual surgical tools. Next time, forget it.

In the interest of simplicity, the loop represented both the large and small intestine. I had some nubby yarn that I really, really wanted to throw in there as omentum but I held myself back.

The stomach needed to be fairly correct as a gastrotomy was going to be one of the two surgeries the kids could do. It’s a fleecy material with the nubby side on the inside (rugae! yaay!). I ended up using ribbon “stitches” sewn into the sides of the incision, which was a smart choice once the fifth graders started yanking on them full-force.

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For the uterus, I sewed two red socks together at the toe (worked like a charm!) and bought a handful of small puppy toys. The ovaries were little white yarn pom-poms.

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I sewed a snap into the tip of both socks to keep the “uterus” closed. I also put in a piece of stretchy rubber ribbon on both sides of the abdomen that the uterus held to with velcro but that was overkill with these kids so I didn’t use it. Feel free to use it for the vet student in your life, though- they’ll have to get used to wrestling with that thing.

By the time everything got stuffed in there it was actually a shockingly decent approximation for the surgical experience- you look in and think, what the heck am I looking at? So I made a legend as well.

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With all of that in hand, as well as a bunch of gloves and masks we didn’t end up using, we headed off to the science fair.

Step 3: The actual test

We had a lot of competition at the science fair. Computer programming, dry ice, slime, rockets, frogs. Since the kids didn’t know they were going to be doing surgery until they came up and asked what was going on, they all freaked out a little and then said, let’s do it!

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I used some of the radiographs readers shared with me. The pregnancy one was a big hit!

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A small cardboard tube served as a trachea and the kids intubated with a See’s candy stick.

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An old pillowcase with a rectangle cutout in the middle served as a surgical drape.

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For the case where the dog was vomiting, we used our legend to try and determine what we were looking for (something big and pink.)

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The kids got to pull out the assortment of items our patient ingested: a ball, a sock, a rock, and to see how they would lodge in the pylorus as there was no way they’d fit into the intestines.

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I could easily have had two dogs going, but as I had to re-stuff the dog after every surgery I had my assistant prepare the surgery table while the next group waited.

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Unsurprisingly, the c-section was a big crowd pleaser. We had only one person run off in horror when they figured out what was going on, and it was a dad.

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I wrapped the puppies in saran wrap “membranes”. For the little kids who weren’t quite up to delivering a puppy, the bigger kids could hand them a puppy to wrap in a towel, remove the membrane, and stimulate them to breathe (you see one in the lower left corner). Worked like a charm.

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Even the moms learned something, as in, “dang, that’s a big uterus.” Yes, it is.

The kids were all very concerned after to make sure the dog was closed and “woken up” after surgery was completed, all except the older boys who wanted to pull all the organs out and play with them. There’s something for everyone here at the clinic.

And the best part of the night were the kids who realized there were two surgeries and came back for more. Mission Minion recruitment accomplished!

Pawcurious: With Veterinarian and Author Dr. V

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