High-speed reflective learning - Veterinary Practice
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High-speed reflective learning

Graham Duncanson has been having the time of his life careering down the ice in Switzerland and handling a delicate operation on a camel in Germany – and recalls an earlier time in Kenya.

I WAS lucky enough on the second
day of 2014 to ride on a four-man
bob sledge on the only track in
France, which is at La Plagne.

Some of you might not think this
was lucky. It is a particularly dangerous
sport and, surprise, surprise, I was not
covered by my Saga Travel Insurance.
However, my daughter Amelia was on
hand with strict
not to waste
money bringing
my body home
but to bury me
on-site. This
would not have
been easy in the
frozen rocky terrain of the Alps.

She was very happy with this
arrangement as she is a keen skier and
so would be pleased to visit my grave
at least once a year! I was particularly
pleased to do the run as my father
as a 23-year-old had 90 years earlier
been on the Cresta Run in St Moritz in

The sport started soon after the start
of the 20th century in St Moritz on
the streets of the village. As it soon
became very dangerous, the owner of
the Kulm Hotel had a special track
made from St Moritz to the village of

The modern sledge, or “four-man
bob”, is 12-and-a-half feet long.
Obviously, as a down-hill race, the
heavier the crew the better. There is,
however, a restriction of 630kg for
the total weight of the bob and four
crew. We travelled at speeds in excess
of 120km per hour for just under a
minute. Our team was particularly
elated to clock the fastest speed this
season of 123km per hour. With
several months of the season left I
doubt if we will keep our record.

Now I am sure by now you are
thinking, whatever has this got to do
with “reflective learning”? Amelia, like
I suspect many children, used to try to
hold her breath when going through
a tunnel when travelling in a car. This
is excellent training for swimming
underwater. Our bob coach, however,
was very rm about any breath- holding. He told us it was vital that we
continued to breathe with fairly regular
shallow breaths.

It was such a terrifying experience
when we had reached top speed that I
suspect I would have held my breath in
terror. I listened to his advice and kept
a shallow regular breathing rhythm.
Even aged 69 I had no problems.

I had cause to reflect on the
following day as Amelia and I
happened to share a chair-lift with a
middle-aged gentleman and his son. He
asked us what we did for a living. My
daughter explained that she had under
six months to go before she, hopefully,
qualified as a veterinary surgeon at
Cambridge. She explained that I had
qualified from Bristol over 47 years
ago. It was interesting that the middle-
aged gentleman was a vascular surgeon
from Salisbury and his son was reading
bioscience and hoped eventually to
become a doctor.

It was a long cold lift and to pass the
time I inquired about the dangers of
breath holding when travelling at high
speeds, experiencing large “G” forces
at altitude. The surgeon explained that
severe cranial haemorrhages would
appear to be the norm! The likelihood
of cardiac infarction in elderly men
was extremely high.

On reflection, riding a bob might
have been a colourful experience for
my father aged 23, even in an era with
fairly unsophisticated medical facilities;
for me sudden death was a distinct
possibility. Saga insurance can relax:
I won’t be volunteering to represent
Great Britain in the four-man bob
event at the Winter Olympics. In fact,
if I had done my homework before the
trip and then reflected on my learning,
I would not have made the ride.
However, I am still alive and well so
actually I am glad I did it.

Amelia and I flew home from
France to Gatwick on 4th January.
She returned for further study at
Cambridge. I proceeded to Stansted
to y out to help a veterinary friend in
Germany to castrate a seven-year-old
camel the next day. How do I know
anything about castrating camels? Like
my father, I had a misspent youth.

While he was 23 he was riding the
Cresta Run. When I was 23 I was
castrating camels in Northern Kenya.
In fact there were more than a million
camels in Kenya so I had many to practise on. You can forget all the
damn-fool stories about two bricks and
keeping your thumbs out of the way.

Camels are very easily sedated with
intramuscular xylazine at standard
cattle doses for medium sedation.
They will soon adopt the “kush”
position, i.e. sternal recumbency. Local
anaesthetic should be injected along
the likely incision line in the scrotum
and into the two testicular cords. In
fact, it is safe to use a straightforward
open castration technique, as in mature
bulls, just twisting and pulling the

My German colleague, Jens
Cramer, said he would prefer to use
his emasculators and so that is what
we did. The camel received tetanus
antitoxin (TAT), antibiotics and
NSAIDs. All went well and the camel
rose to his feet and started eating hay
in just over 30 minutes.

Talking with veterinary colleagues
from different countries is always
interesting and worthwhile. Jens was
an excellent veterinarian but it was
his father who was so remarkable.
He was still in full-time large animal
practice at the age of 82. He attended
two calving cows in the 24 hours I
was in Germany. I hope I will be able
to continue in full-time large animal
practice into my 70s – provided I don’t
do any more bob runs!

Circus involvement

Sadly, I am still in grave danger of not
surviving into my 70s on account of
my friendship with Emma Milne. I am
sure many readers will be aware that
Emma is a marvellous champion of
animal welfare.

As a trustee of the BVA AWF, she
raised £5,500 by swimming 5km last
year. However, she is likely to kill me
as this camel was owned by a circus.
Emma is strongly opposed to use of
animals in circuses.

I do respect her views and having
been dealing with circus animals for
over 40 years I entirely agree that there
are often welfare issues.

The “Great Indian Circus” came to
Mombasa in 1967. I was only 23 and I
am sure the veterinary work caused my
hair to start turning grey. I had to carry out a caesarean section on a lioness which had dead

We managed to give
her acetylpromazine
intramuscularly by using the
circus’ crush cage. We gave
her a general anaesthetic by
giving her pentobarbitone
intravenously to effect into
the saphenous vein, by
pulling her hind leg through
the bars of her cage.
Actually the surgery was straightforward; it was the GA which
was particularly scary.

The circus left Mombasa by boat to
Mauritius. The veterinary authorities
in Mauritius required that all the
animals received a protozoalcidal dose
of a trypanocide within 14 days of
departure. Giving this to the dogs,
horses, camels and chimpanzees was a
challenge for a new grad.

Giving such an injection to three
elephants caused a real adrenaline
rush. The elephants were trained to
go down into sternal recumbency. The
two females tolerated their injections
behind the ear stoically, but they did
whack me with their trunks to show
their displeasure. What would the male
do? To try to avoid being whacked by
his trunk, I decided to lean over his
neck once he was lying down and inject
him so that in theory he would lash out
with his trunk on the side which hurt
and not actually at me.

The best made plans can go horribly
wrong. As I gave the injection he gave
a roar and leapt to his feet. I fell off
his neck and landed in a heap under his
massive head and tusks. He could have
crushed me with one of his front feet,
he could have gored me with his tusks
or he could have just thrown me up in
the air with his trunk.

I looked into his wise old eyes. I am
sure he smiled. He just smelled me
from head to toe with his trunk. I am
sure he was saying, “If I ever smell you
again young man, beware.”

In conclusion, I reflect that although
I still have nightmares about that
experience, I am much more frightened
of Emma Milne and will join her
campaign to ban the involvement of
animals in circuses.

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