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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Learning to DIY, or How I Became A Mechanical Engineer In Veterinary Medicine

Most people don't realize just how slim the budget and narrow the profit margin is in almost every veterinary practice.  When something breaks down we can't always afford to call in a professional to fix it.  Often we have to muddle through and try to figure out how to do it ourselves.  It may take longer than would someone who actually knew what they were doing, but it is a lot less expensive.

When I was growing up working for a local vet, this happened commonly.  I remember our clothes dryer breaking down many times.  It was a standard household one because the vet couldn't afford an industrial model, and it wasn't designed for the daily grind we put it through.  The drive belt would break, the heater would die, and other things would go wrong.  I was 16 years old and my boss asked me to try and fix it.  I had never done anything like that before, but I've always been bold and confident, and decided to see what I could do.  I discovered that dryers really aren't that complicated and only have a few major parts.  Sure, it took a while to figure out how to put on a new belt, or how the get the heating element out.  But by simply jumping in and doing it, going slowly as I took it apart and paying attention to where parts connected, I was able to do it myself.

As I got into vet school I realized that there were actually many similarities between living bodies and machines.  One time during my veterinary training the brake light on my car went out.  My dad used to be a mechanic and was a regional sales manager for a major car company, so I knew he could help me figure it out.  He got out his voltage testers and started going down the wires trying to find the short or break.  As we did that it suddenly dawned on me.  "Hey, this isn't any different than isolating neurological damage in a dog!"  In my mind the wires were nerves, and we had to figure out where the nerve signal failed.  I remembered my lessons in testing reflexes in different parts of the body, and based on the responses determining where the damage was.  Once that clicked in my brain it was easy to get into finding the right wires as I equated the electrical tests to neuro exams.

Just recently our dental machine suddenly stopped working.  Our first dental of the day went fine, but during the second one we lost any power to our scaler and polisher.  It was a Saturday, so the technical support line for the machine was closed.  We had four other dentals scheduled and I didn't want to cancel those as well as the ones for the next several days until we could get in touch with someone to trouble-shoot the problem.  So I took my medical training and started looking at the machine.  

There was a compressor, which was like the heart, and there were electronics, like the nervous system.  I checked the circuit breaker, which worked fine.  All of the electronic parts seemed to work, and it looked like we just weren't getting any air pressure into the system.  I checked the tank pressure, released some, and waited for the air pump to build it back up again.  Okay, that worked, so the "heart" was in good condition.  The problem must be in the line somewhere.  And that's like anatomy!  It then became a matter of following the "vessels" (air lines) from the compressor to the rest of the equipment.  As I did so I noticed that one connection seemed loose.  A little fiddling with it and I realized that a clamp had been bumped loose, disconnecting one of the tubes.  As soon as I connected it properly everything worked fine again.  The "blood" (air) was now able to go from the "heart" through the "vessels" and into the "limbs" (hand pieces).  I fixed it!

Despite the title, I'm really not great with mechanical things and am nowhere near the skills of a true engineer.  But I've picked up a lot of skills over the years out of sheer necessity and by relating it to my medical training.  I've been pleasantly surprised at how my knowledge as a doctor can give me analogies to help me understand non-medical concepts.  I've used the same principle to try and explain diseases and injuries to clients in non-medical ways.