As is no doubt clear by this point in my blogging career, I am a with-it and hip sort of chap with his finger on the pulse of youth culture. Consequently, I am aware when a youngster brings his pet to me and says “my dog is sick, man”, he may actually mean the animal is very good.

It’s little things like this that give me the edge in the consulting room.

The obvious progression (in my mind, at least) from this trend of calling good things sick is that really, really good things will naturally be referred to as pathological – as in: “Have you seen that new Star Wars flick, man? That thing is, like, totally pathological, y’get me?”

Actually, this could be the start of a whole new trend of medical words becoming cool: “Oh man, this hangover is well iatrogenic, y’know?” Or: “Where did this bruise come from? It’s majorly idiopathic, man.”

No? Okay, well, just a thought…

Work experience

“Staring down a microscope all day? Oh God, I can’t imagine anything worse.” – Image: Hoda Bogdan.

Anyway, I have been tying a few different strings to my veterinary bow in the past few months, one of which was a day doing something I’ve been interested in for a long time – seeing practice at a veterinary pathology lab.

When I told my colleagues what I was going to do, as well as the encouraging ones, I got a few reactions along the lines of: “Doing what? Staring down a microscope all day? Oh God, I can’t imagine anything worse.” This was often followed by sentiments to the effect of: “Still, a nine-to-five job, can’t be bad.”

It turns out these reactions are the veterinary pathology equivalent of the “a vet! That’s a licence to print money. You must be coining it in!” instant response from the uninformed that gets wearingly repeated at every party you’ll ever attend after qualifying as a veterinary surgeon. This blog is here to tell you why.

Pathology 101

I’ll start with the basics – I’m afraid for the purposes of writing I am assuming everyone is as stupid as me, so please forgive me if this is news along the lines of the Pope’s religious denomination.

Veterinary pathology, like human pathology, is divided into two broad disciplines – anatomic pathology and clinical pathology.

Anatomic pathology is, to put it bluntly, concerned with the big dead bits – examination of organs and whole bodies at the gross, microscopic and molecular level – while clinical pathology deals with the rest of it – examination of blood, bodily fluids and tissue aspirations, analysing them chemically and microscopically.

It’s the clinical pathologists who interpret your blood samples, your fine needle aspirates and your microbiology swabs.

My day seeing practice was at a clinical pathology lab and will sadly, therefore, include no references to an eccentric German professor dissecting a giraffe (apart from this one).

So, to those statements…

‘I can’t imagine anything worse’

To celebrate crowbarring two Star Wars references into a single blog post, here’s Dr Nick brandishing his very own lightsaber…

Well, my day at the lab was one of the most enjoyable of my entire career, for many reasons:

  1. I was readily supplied with coffee (see this post for my feelings on hot beverages).
  2. Everyone in the office seemed to share my slightly offbeat sense of humour, and I felt at home almost instantly – especially after my oxytocin joke was well received (I was going to add it in here, but it was a bit of a let-down. Aheh).
  3. The pathologist I was paired with for the day was dazzling to watch – incredibly professional, thorough and fast. He was funny and passionate about his job, as well as being patient with me, despite me slowing him down with my many idiotic questions.
  4. (and the most fun part from my point of view) the work itself.

I have previously lamented (here, for example, or here) that, working as a vet in general practice, the science frequently gets pushed into the background among all the little compromises we have to make just to get through the day.

I was always proud to qualify as a Bachelor of Veterinary Science because I like to think of myself as, first and foremost, a scientist (mind you, I also like to think of myself as a Jedi, but I still have to pick up the remote control myself).

I love the puzzle of medicine, of picking out the clues from the symptoms and test results, fitting them into the clinical picture and working out what is wrong. The problem is, in general practice, you’re frequently distracted from the details of the puzzle by the client’s financial or emotional state, which can bring your investigations to a dead end.

In clinical pathology, it’s ALL about the puzzle. That’s your job. One puzzle after another, solving problems hundreds of times a day.


Let me try and explain it this way: I never had much of a head for maths, but I always loved and respected the purity of it. Saying one plus one equals two is a statement of beautiful truth – a pure truth that can’t be misinterpreted or complicated by someone else’s viewpoint – and it gives me a feeling of contentment I can’t quite express.

I felt something similar at the laboratory. The puzzles that came in, the blood results, the slides to interpret – they all had a purity to them that you seldom get in the messiness of general practice.

That’s possibly over-eulogising, because, of course, there’s messiness in clinical pathology too, but there is far less and it’s more controlled than in other spheres of the veterinary world – and something about it set my nerdy little heart singing with joy. I had a great day.

That brings me to the second of the reactive statements:

The ‘nine-to-five’ job of veterinary pathology

MYTH BUSTED: Veterinary pathology is no more a nine-to-five job than that of a general practitioner. Image: sp4764 / Fotolia.

It’s an easy assumption to make in general practice (and I’ll admit I have been guilty of it too). When you’re working a busy evening surgery and you try to ring the lab at 5:45pm, only to get an answerphone, the sad tendency is to glance at your own growing list of appointments and think: “I wish I bloody got to go home at 5:30pm every day.”

Well, I am here to report it isn’t like that. The reason the phones switch over to answerphone at 5:30pm is because, if they didn’t, the pathologists – not to mention the lab technicians, secretaries and office staff – wouldn’t get home at all.

At the lab, like in general practice, you stay until the work is done, because it is vitally important to get those test results back as soon as possible. More than likely, when you have finished your evening surgery at 7:30pm, weary and longing for much-deserved wine, the pathologists at your local lab still have another hour or two of slides and results to interpret. It’s a heavy workload, but no more a nine-to-five job than that of a general practitioner.

Hopefully that’s my myth-busting done for today. Now you know a little about how one of the other halves lives. I thought I might enjoy it, and I was right.

Veterinary clinical pathology – it’s not just sick, it’s totally pathological, man.

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2 Comments on "Totally pathological"

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1 year 3 months ago

Were you a little off centre before you started in practice and are you now a fully fledged gone over to the dark side sort of person?

Nick Marsh
1 year 3 months ago

Well, who would want to live in the centre anyway? But actually, I have been offered a residency in clinical pathology at the lab in the blog, and I have taken it. I’ll still be doing some locum work, and I’m not sure that clin. path is the dark side… there’s not a lot of Force-strangling goes on at the lab… at least I think not….


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