If we’ve met, I’ve probably pictured what you look like on the inside. Hope that doesn’t make you too uncomfortable. It’s just how my mind works. If I’m with someone that is smoking, I’m picturing the black discoloration of their lungs. If I’m with a pregnant woman, I’m picturing a fetus expanding her uterus and displacing her other organs out of the way. If someone I know is sick, I visualize what is happening to their organs to cause them to have symptoms.
I’m a veterinary pathologist. I have a degree in veterinary medicine, am a licensed vet, but further specialized in pathology, the study of disease. My work primarily involves dead animals and performing autopsies on them. As you can imagine, after explaining this, most people think that sounds absolutely disgusting and wonder why I’d ever possibly want such a job. Honestly though, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I love what I do. I feel lucky to be able to study the body so closely. There’s true beauty in my work and beauty in a death. This is what made me fall in love with pathology when I was first introduced in veterinary school.
Consider a beloved pet in your life that has since passed away. She lived, was loved, and all the while her body grew, changed, endured hardships and wounds. Her organs aged and deteriorated. Perhaps an aggressive cancer developed, spread throughout her body, ravaged her organs, and ultimately led to her demise. After this precious being exits this world, all that remains is the vessel that supported her on this journey: her body. And this is where I come into the equation.
I can remove an animals brain, and hold in my hand the organ that was responsible for every thought she ever had. I can examine a heart that beat one billion times, supplying a lifetime’s worth of oxygenated blood to a body. A man can love his best canine friend in a way that nobody else does, but I get to see things even he cannot.
After observing everything possible with on an organ level, I select pieces of organs to inspect on a cellular level. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than visualizing cross sections of tumor cells, kidney tubules that filter the urine, or degenerating heart valves. Some of these findings are normal and expected, others are surprising and significant. There are few better feelings in the world than combining all of this information together to figure out why an animal was sick or died when nobody else could.
People commonly ask, “Doesn’t your job make you sad? All of your patients are dead or sick.” Yes, sometimes, of course! But, I believe that best way to respect and cherish life is to study death. Postmortem examinations can and do save lives. The knowledge that we gather when we study an animal after its death is used to modify treatments and improve future surgical techniques. Animal models of human disease allow us to test and perfect innovative treatments for horrific human diseases such as pancreatic cancer or incurable genetic diseases such as ALS. I’ve actually seen my work save lives, both animal and human.
When asked about my career, there was a time in my life that I would either pretend to be a small animal vet or make up another more pleasant-sounding job. But no longer. I will continue to proudly state that I’m a veterinary pathologist, and I do, indeed, cut up dead animals for a living. I will continue picturing what people look like on the inside. And I will continue saving lives, one dead animal at a time.