Editorial: Saving My First Patient
By Neal Barnard, M.D.
“I didn’t come to medical school to kill my first patient.” That’s what I found myself saying to my instructor. I was a student at the George Washington University School of Medicine, and our pharmacology professor had just announced that “dog lab” was scheduled for the following week. Four students were to be assigned to each dog. We were to inject the animal with a series of drugs, record the heart rate, blood pressure, and other parameters. At the end of the afternoon, the dog would be in a trash bag.
I had been a good student and had never refused an assignment. And I was not squeamish about blood or about death, for that matter, when it was inevitable. But this was different.
“I’ll write up the results, and I’ll turn them in on time,” I told my professor, knowing that the results were predictable in advance. “But I’m not going to be at the laboratory, so please count me out.” Another student heard my refusal and decided to join the impromptu boycott. We both passed the class, and eventually the “dog lab”—which had seemed so essential at the time—was eliminated from the curriculum.
When I founded PCRM, I made it a priority to get rid of these cruel exercises. Not only do they kill animals, but at the end of each laboratory experience, a part of the student’s compassion dies, too. Students who train on animals come to imagine that there is no other way. Their interest in using more humane methods is blunted, and none of this does the profession any good.
Over time, PCRM has worked with many medical schools to replace animal laboratories. With our recent successes at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Virginia, only five North American medical schools still have live animal laboratories for their students. A similar transition has occurred in trauma training.
Pediatrics residents still practice on live animals in some medical centers, passing tubes down the throats of kittens, adult cats, or ferrets, as surrogates for neonates. But animals’ anatomy is not the same as that of a human baby. And the last thing we want pediatricians to learn is that tiny patients are expendable. They need to be especially caring. So humanlike simulators do double duty, helping trainees gain competence, and sparing animals’ lives.
In this issue, we look at the battle to put humanity back into medical education, allowing students to save lives even before they graduate.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM