The Value of a Valid Complaint

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Vertebrate Embryology class in the Zoology Department of the School of Science at Oregon State University was a required course for virtually all preprofessional students in 1969. That means that anyone hoping to get into medical school, dental school, or veterinary school was required to take this class. A good grade, preferably an A, was an unspoken requirement.

In the years before 1969, the series, which included two-quarters of Vertebrate Anatomy, was required. This was the first year that the requirement was reduced to just the embryology class. 

These classes were taught by Dr. Hilliman. Dr. Hilliman was feared by most students in the class. He virtually held their futures in his hand and could scratch their dreams with a stroke of a pen. Rumor had it that he had just failed one of his Ph.D. candidates who had been studying under him for five years.

The lectures were held in a large auditorium in the Zoology building. I don’t know how many people were in the class, but the arena was packed. I would suspect there were nearly 600 students in the lectures. Then the class was broken into laboratory groups. Graduate students would conduct the weekly lab classes, and my lab class had about thirty students.

Historically, one of the main features of the fall term was a massive spelling test. This test included anatomy names and phrases extracted from all three classes in the vertebrate anatomy and embryology series.

This was the setting when Dr. Hilliman addressed the packed auditorium about the upcoming spelling test.

“This test will be from the list of words that will be handed out in your lab class this week,” Dr. Hilliman said. “This word list is derived from words in this class and the two anatomy classes. This test is heavily weighted in my grade book.”

I was thunderstruck. How could he justify testing over classes that are no longer required? I waited for the uproar from the class.

Not a word was said. The entire auditorium was silent, not even a moan. There was nobody brave enough to question this man. 

I was mere weeks from the days when I gave presentations to visiting generals and NSA bigwigs in the general staff meetings at Wobeck. Those men actually held men’s lives in their hands. Those men had actual power. This professor was nothing compared to those men.

I took a deep breath and stood up. An audible gasp rose from the depths of the auditorium. Dr. Hilliman actually looked shocked as he looked at me. Someone was actually standing to address him. But he did not say a word to acknowledge my standing in the middle of this huddled mass of students.

Finally, I spoke in a firm, loud voice so all could hear.

“Dr. Hilliman, I am David Larsen,” I said. “I know this is a historical test, but this year, the requirement for the two anatomy classes has been dropped from the preprofessional requirements. The majority of students in this class today will not be required to take those classes. I think it is grossly unfair to be tested over material that we will not be required to take.”

When I was finished, I continued to stand. Dr. Hilliman seemed to glare at me, but he was too distant for me to appreciate that glare.

“Sit down,” Bob, a premed student sitting beside me, said as he tugged at my shirt. “Your dead, you know.”

Full minutes passed as Dr. Hilliman contemplated how to address this lone student who dared to stand and question the very conduct of his class. Did this fool not know his stature, the power he wielded over this group of wannabes. There was a hushed silence in the auditorium as everyone waited for the explosion.

“I have given this test every fall for over twenty years,” Dr. Hilliman finally said. “In that time, not one student has stood up and complained about this test. How dare you question my intentions.”

“I know the history of this test,” I said. “But this is the first year in the change in requirements. I say again, most of this class will not be required to take the two anatomy classes included in this test. And, I do not think that is fair.”

“The test will be conducted in your lab classes in three weeks,” Dr. Hilliman said. “Its format will be unchanged.”

That sounded like the discussion was over. I knew enough to not push too hard and try to get in the last word. I sat down.

“Why did you give him your name?” Bob said. “He is the most vindictive man on campus. You’re dead for sure.”

“What is he going to do? Send me to Vietnam,” I said.

Bob looked with a question in his eyes.

“That is the standard Army threat,” I said. “Do this the way I say, or I will send you to Vietnam.”

***

The following week, Dr. Hilliman appear in my lab class. He came through the door and stood in the corner as the graduate student was finishing some instruction. When she was finished, he came over and pulled up a chair to the table that I shared with Bob. He laid his grade book on the table.

“How are you doing today?” Dr. Hilliman asked.

“I’m doing fine,” I said. 

“I have been looking at my grade book,” Dr. Hilliman said. “You are doing quite well. Not the top of the class, but close.”

“I enjoy your class,” I said. “That makes it easy.”

“You are a little older than most of my students. Can you tell me a little about yourself?”

“There’s not much to tell. I grew up in Myrtle Point. I didn’t do well in my first couple of years of college. So I spent nearly 4 years in the Army. That gave me some maturity, some direction in my life, and a sense of responsibility to my fellow man.”

“The other day, when I said nobody had ever questioned me in class, I meant it. I all my years of teaching, nobody has stood up in my class like you did.”

“Everybody is afraid of you,” I said. “You intimidate them.”

“You’re a good student. A little anatomy test should not be an issue for you.”

“But it might be for some of your students,” I said. “Like I said in class, it’s not fair. The test is not fair, and your intimidation is not fair.”

Dr. Hilliman sort of recoiled at that statement.

“What makes you so different?” he asked.

“My experience base is a bit different than a lot of your students,” I said. “Fear and intimidation is no way to lead men, or women, for that matter.”

***

The test turned out to be no big thing. It was a snap, in fact. It was one of the few things I studied for that fall, and getting an A was the expected result.

Following the test, the lab instructor handed me a note. It was from Dr. Hilliman, with an invite to visit him in his office.

“I have never seen Dr. Hilliman take a personnel interest in an undergraduate student,” the lab instructor said. “Your standing alone, in the middle of the auditorium the other day, must have made quite an impression on him. Good luck with the meeting.”

In my remaining two years at Oregon State, Dr. Hilliman remained a good friend and advisor. Unlike his reputation, I found him a cheerleader for my progress and an excellent reference for my applications for veterinary school.

Photo by D. E. Larsen, DVM

Clyde’s Big Jill-Poke

D. E. Larsen, DVM

It was almost evening in late July when Geoff pull his pickup and horse trailer to a stop along the road adjacent to our house on Ames Creek.

I had just got my vet box installed on my pickup, making a few farm calls. It was far easier to practice on large animals without a clinic than working on dogs and cats. Still, I did not encourage people to bring livestock or horses to the house.

I met Geoff in the middle of the driveway.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Larsen,” I said as I offered this big guy my hand. “Is there something I can help you with this evening?”

“I’m Geoff,” he said. “I was headed into the wilderness area on Three Fingered Jack to scout the area for archery season. I was about a half-hour into the ride when Clyde, my horse, jumped over a log and jill-poked himself in his armpit with one hell of a limb sticking up on the other side. It made one hell of a hole in him. I turned him around right then and started back. I wanted to get back to the truck before he started to get stoved up from the wound. I was wondering if you could get a look at it?”

“I hate looking at a horse so close to the road, but it sounds like Clyde needs some help,” I said. “Let’s unload him and move him on to that little patch of lawn by your trailer.”

Clyde was a big horse, sort of a dirty palomino, almost brown. I wondered about his name. He was big enough to have some Clydesdale in his heritage. 

It is difficult to back him out of the trailer. I think this wound was really bothering him now.

Clyde walked the few steps to stand on the patch of lawn with slow, measured steps. He wasn’t dragging his right front leg, but he was using it reluctantly.

I grabbed his leg and used it as a support as I swung my head under Clyde’s chest to examine the wound. I made an audible gasp!

“Wow, Geoff,” I said. “You’re fortunate that you got him back to the truck. Have you got a good look at this wound?”

“I knew it was bad, but I never crawled under him to look,” Geoff said.

“Well, not only is it a big wound,” I said. “But it is in a location that has so much movement, a closure will never hold.”

“So, what are you going to do?” Geoff asked.

“I am going to clean this wound up and then close it,” I said. “If we can get it to hold together for a week or two, it will speed up the total healing time. But I want you to prepare yourself for the morning when you go out and check him, and this wound is wide open.”

“What happens at that point?” Geoff asked.

“Then we will treat it as an open wound,” I said. “These wounds on the body, above the belly line, heal very well if they are kept clean and not allowed to get infected.”

With that, I scrubbed the wound with Betadine scrub. Clyde was very stoic or painful enough that he didn’t want to move. Then I injected Lidocaine around the wound for local anesthesia. I almost had to crawl under Clyde to shave the injury to my satisfaction. Then I gave the wound a final scrubbing.

“I am going to reach up into that wound and explore it,” I said to Geoff as I pulled on a pair of surgical gloves. “He has been pretty good, but you want to get a good grip on his lead rope.”

I eased my left hand into the wound. Clyde did not move. My hand was buried into the tear almost to my wrist when I reached the end of the puncture. Clyde had been fortunate, any deeper, and there are major arteries and nerves.

I explored the wound carefully with my fingertips. I immediately bumped into a chunk of wood stuck in the posterior depth of the wound. I couldn’t quite get a grip on it with my fingertips.

I stopped and retrieved a large forceps from the truck. After changing gloves, I had to almost crawl completely under Clyde, but I could get ahold of the piece with the forceps, and it came out with a good tug.

This was nearly a three-inch piece of wood. Jagged at the end, luckily, it was directed posteriorly, away from the vital structures in the armpit. I held it up for Geoff to see.

“This would have caused a little problem if it was left in there,” I said. “Clyde was lucky that the limb was pointed back. It missed some of the major stuff if this had gone straight up.”

I flushed the wound and placed a couple of drains before closing the wound as securely as possible. I had little confidence that things would hold together but thought we might just get lucky. After a hefty dose of Combiotic and a tetanus shot, we loaded him up for the trip home.

With all the Lidocaine, Clyde walked back to the trailer a little easier than before. He loaded easily. I think he knew he was headed home.

“Geoff, I am just getting started here and have plenty of time to manage cases. I will drop your place in three days to remove those drains. Then we can figure out a schedule of visits. If we get lucky, and this wound holds together, I will leave those sutures in for three weeks.”

“What do I need to do with him when we get home?” Geoff asked.

“If you can bed him down in a clean stall, that would be best,” I said. “The smaller the stall, the better. The more he moves, the more likely this wound will open up. Give him a dose of Combiotic twice a day and give me a call if that wound comes apart.”

***

Three days later, Clyde almost acted like he was glad to see me. He was in a small stall, but he stepped on his right front leg like it was not a bother. Again, I was amazed that he stood still as I swung on his leg to get the drains out. The wound looked great. I was allowing myself to think that I was home free. I left a note for Geoff, saying that I would check Clyde Monday, Thursday, and Saturday for the next two weeks.

***

In the middle of the second week, the wound opened slightly in the middle of the closure. There was minimal drainage, and it looked like there was good healing taking place.  

I scrubbed the wound and injected some Lidocaine. Then I placed a mattress suture at each end of the opening in the incision. This proved to be an effective strategy, as the remainder of the closure healed well. The small open area took an extra couple of weeks to heal, but Clyde was as good as new after five weeks.

Photo by Dario Fernandez Ruz from Pexels

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