Course Teaches Surgical Techniques

While some Harvard students spend their Wednesday afternoons puzzling over problem sets or cramming out essay paragraphs, a handful take the M2 shuttle to the Longwood Medical Area every week for a different kind of coursework: performing surgery on pigs.

In OEB 251: “Introduction to Vertebrate Surgery”—a course taught by Director of the Harvard Animal Resources Center Arthur L. Lage—students learn everything from different surgical stitching techniques to how to administer anesthesia. Lage, who is also a professor of surgery, says his goal is to teach surgical techniques used to operate on various classes of vertebrates from mammals to birds.

“It’s like a military operation,” said Sean L. Po ’13, one student taking the course this fall. “If we don’t do this correctly, our patient could die.”

Lage said he focuses on teaching students differences between animals—such as quadrupeds versus bipeds or simple-stomached animals versus ruminants—and how to perform surgery accordingly.

“We cover anesthesia, analgesia, aseptic technique, surgical procedures, fluid therapy, surgical emergencies, antimicrobial practices, and other relevant topics,” he said.

In the course, which has been offered for more than 20 years, students learn both open surgery and minimally invasive surgery using video cameras. They practice these techniques mostly on pigs.

Lage said that the course is important for both animal welfare and research.

“I am teaching this so that students who want to make a career in the life sciences have the opportunity to develop a sound foundation in the proper way to apply surgery in research—whether it be in the laboratory setting or in field studies,” he said.

This year, Lage has invited other veterinarians, physicians, and a surgical technician to help him teach. Students spend up to seven hours in one Wednesday session.

Most students taking the course aspire to be either doctors or veterinarians.  “I still hear from former students telling me how much the course has meant to them, how it has helped them, and how it rounded out their experience in the study of biology,” Lage said.

MacKenzie L. Luick ’13 hopes to be a veterinary surgeon one day. “We learn how to do everything from take care of the animals to prep them for surgery,” she said. “It’s one of the few classes at Harvard that really applies what you learn.”

Students praised the class for its application of theory—a trait that they often find lacking in other courses.

“We can see how everything works together in a living, breathing system. It’s a hands-on experience with really skilled professionals,” Po said.