Saturday, January 24, 2015

How I got here...

Thank you all for your encouraging words and for your interest and questions. I will try to answer all of them over the next few days.  A couple of these questions are sort of tied together so I am going to try to answer them as one. 

From Michaele:  I"d like to know if you work or are retired and if you did or do have a job - what is it? You would have made a fantastic large animal vet.

From Rebecca2:  What "inspired" you to live on a farm in upstate, snowy New York?

From anonymous: How did you end up in New York doing the job you do?  Why do you stay?


How I wish I could retire.  However, I do work, in fact, I have been gainfully employed since I was eleven.  My single mother told me she would do what she could to support my horse obsession, but if I really wanted one, I had to come up with a way to pay the horse bills on my ownAnd I have.  I have always wholly supported my animals and I have supported myself and my animals entirely since I was sixteen.  

Ironically, my dream always was to be a vet, I think I would have been good at it too:).  However,  my mother was very suddenly diagnosed with terminal cancer when I was a senior in high school.  At the time, we lived in northern California and I had plans to go to UC Davis.  She wanted to spend her last days lying on the beach, but her family wouldn't hear of it and bullied her into moving to New York for treatment at Roswell Cancer Institute.  They pushed her into it with threats to disown me and my two siblings.  We ended up selling everything and coming to New York.  She passed away nine months later and her funeral was the last time I ever saw or heard from my grandparents.   

The move to NY took my college plans with it as well.  In a last minute scurry, I ended up going through the Equine Science program at a NY state school with the goal of going to Cornell.  However, my own health also took a major hit at the time and I ended up having pneumonia 6 times in two years.  Not to mention being penniless and homeless.  When I met a guy who wanted to build a house and make a home, I gave in to the lure of stability and bad lungs and decided to try to finish my degree as an Earth Science major instead of vet school.  My lungs have never recovered from the damage they suffered and are not up to being in dusty barns all day long, which is why I finally gave up on the idea of vet school altogether. 

As for why I stay in NY....that is a question I struggle with all the time.  I never wanted to be here and still don't.  However, the very few people who really matter to me are here and aren't leaving so I stay.  I think of NY as a kind of black hole.  I came here under duress in 1990 and have never managed to escape its gravity well. 

Needing a better way to make a living than working in an animal shelter for minimum wage and in retail, I went back to school in 1999 for another AAS degree in Histotechnology.  And if you've never heard of this, don't feel bad, I hadn't either before stumbling on the program at a nearby college.  I finished my histology degree along with a Bachelors of Technology in Agricultural Science and went to work for a local hospital where I still am.

I work as a histotechnician in the histology lab.  It is the part of the pathology department that deals with tissue samples.  Every bit of tissue removed from the body during any kind of procedure, from biopsies to amputations, comes into this lab and is processed there. The primary function of a clinical lab is diagnostic.  For example, if you go into your doctor's office and have a skin lesion biopsied, that little bit of tissue goes to a histology lab where it undergoes a long series of procedures to preserve, stabilize, cut and stain the tissue so that it can be examined microscopically by a pathologist, who will make a diagnosis.  

Below are some photo-micrographs of the finished product that I stole off the web.  These are photos taken through a microscope of a piece of tissue mounted and stained on a glass slide.  The colors come from the staining procedures and are necessary in order to see the tissue structures.  The tissue would be nearly transparent without the stain. There are hundreds of different stains that can be done to show a variety of structural changes.  Every tissue gets a basic stain called H&E, which shows up as various shades of pink and purple.  The other stains are special ordered by the pathologists when they need to see different things.

To give you an idea of how this works, this first photo is of normal small intestine.  Those finger like projections are called villi.  They are where 90% of nutrient absorption takes place.
This second photo is also small intestine, but it has been damaged by celiac disease.  You can see that all those villi are gone, leaving the surface looking like it has been mowed down.  If celiac goes undiagnosed long enough, those villi may never grow back.

Some other things you might find interesting to see....

Transitional Bone - this is the end of a bone, near where it will meet the joint:

Osteon - these are the structural units of bone stained black using silver nitrate: 

 Colon - high magnification

colon - lower magnification

Liver with a special tri-colored stain

 Liver with basic stain at higher magnification

 Kidney - that circular structure is the glomerulus where all the work gets done.

Loose Connective tissue

Taste bud

Hair follicle with another tri-color special stain

I also do a great deal of very specialized staining called immunohistochemistry (or IHC).  The primary purpose of IHC is cancer diagnosis.  It is used to pinpoint exactly what kind of disease process is going on and in isolating the origin of tumor cells.  It works by detecting the presence or absence of specific antibodies in the tissue.  There are over a hundred of these stains that I do routinely.  Basically, if the persons body has a disease, it will make antibodies against it.  If those antibodies are there, they will stain brown while the blue is just background color.  Without background stain, the tissue is transparent and can't be seen well.  If the slide is negative, everything will be blue.  Just to confuse things though, many normal structures will show positive staining.  Like the above slides, it is up to the pathologist to interpret these.  That's why they get paid the big bucks, I just create them.



Histology is an ancient science.  We still routinely use staining procedures that were developed hundreds of years ago.  At the same time, the IHC stains are cutting edge technology that is evolving constantly.  The science of it all is fascinating.  The day-to-day routine...not so much.  It is very repetitive and requires almost no thought on my part anymore.  Much of what is done in the lab is now automated and a great deal of my job consists of babysitting and troubleshooting machines.  Lucky for them, I am very good at making things work.

This job requires extremely fine motor skills and strong attention to minute detail.  Each of these tissue sections are cut by hand using a machine called microtome which shaves off super thin slices of tissue that has been permanently embedded in wax.  It is a bit like shaving a candle with a super, super sharp razor.  Each section is 4-5 microns thick, which is about 1/10 the thickness of a piece of paper.  The goal is to get a tissue section that is just one cell layer thick so the true morphology can be seen.  There is a real art to it.

Unfortunately, like so many places, the lab is plagued with politics, back biting and toxic personalities.  I have very little patience for all of that and prefer to just go in and do my job, which is why I work by myself on an odd shift from 5:00pm to 1:00am.  The commute is a killer, especially in the winter as the small towns around here quit plowing the roads after dark.  The drive home can sure be interesting.  I am a die-hard believer in studded snow tires, never leave home without them. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Deep in the Doldrums

The winter doldrums have settled upon us.  My mind is overfull, but nothing makes it onto the keyboard.  It all just flows away and freezes in the cold, leaving even more blank whiteness.  Am I the only one?

Help me out here there something you would like to hear about?  Questions you are dying to ask?  I am in dire need of a little inspiration.

Even the donkeys have been quiet lately.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

White Whale

Inter-species Relations

I know many of you are wondering how Connor and the equines are getting along.  So far, pretty well, but with room for improvement. 

I introduced Connor to everyone shortly after bringing him home.  In typical fashion for an 8 week old puppy, he was at first intimidated, but very quickly lost all fear, which was not entirely a good thing.  I don't want him to be afraid of the donkeys or horses, but I do want him to be cautious, respectful and alert around them and to keep his distance.  Zipping around under their feet is not a good thing. 

My first rule of puppy training is to reward the behaviors I want so every time I found Connor sitting quietly outside the barn on his side of the fence, he got a reward.

Connor caught onto this quite quickly, but was still too careless around the hooves.  Emma and Ramsey will tolerate this while they are distracted by their breakfast, but they are not going to put up with a crazy puppy dashing around in their space and they will chase him off.

Ramsey in particular, was not happy to have his space invaded by this interloper.  He is quite jealous of Connor to begin with and doesn't want him in the barn.  I was working on teaching Connor to stay out of the barn when Ramsey took over.  In a display of just how much better animals are at communicating with each other than we humans are, he taught Connor where the boundary is in 0.8 seconds.  He gave Connor the evil-eyed, snake-ears, I'm-gonna-stomp-you look and, just like that, Connor learned to be wary of hoofed animals and respect their space.  Since that one dirty look from Ramsey, Connor no longer tries to enter the barn if any equines are present.  He stays on his side of the fence and observes.

I know many people would rather see Connor safe inside a fenced yard with no access to the donkeys.  However, no fence is ever fool-proof and I strongly believe that it is better to teach him boundaries that he knows he is responsible for maintaining rather than relying on a fence that I know will invaribaly fail at some point.  He is much safer and we are all happier if he knows how to integrate into all aspects of his world. 

Connor has already developed a very strong sense of boundaries, which I am very pleased with.  Outside on his own, he never leaves the perimeter of the house.  He understands that the fence line is a boundary between him and the other animals.  I think that accompanying me every day when I move the fence has helped teach him this.  At first, I carried him and only set him down once we had reached the fence line and I could put him in a safe place.  It did not take him long to grasp that "safe" is on the opposite side of the electric wire, even if it moves each day. 

Out in the field, Tessa is the one I have to really watch around Connor.  She doesn't care about him being near the barn, but she is very defensive about dogs in her territory, which I am really very grateful for given the trouble I have with the neighbor's dogs.  Tessa has taught those dogs to give her pasture a very wide berth and they no longer venture into it.  She can be pretty aggressive towards stray dogs and does not hesitate to chase them down.  However, Tessa is perfectly capable of learning to differentiate between those dogs and my dog.  She knew not to bother Tanner and she is getting close to being trustworthy around Connor. 

For his part, he has learned this invisible boundary as well.  He now accompanies us out into the field at a respectful distance....

....and he recognizes when to ease off and go around.

I see the signs of him developing a very natural and quiet out-run.  I don't know much about training for herding skills and I don't need it, but I have been giving him a voice and hand signal when he offers this.  I know he will learn to do it on command from there and with that, I can shape it to fit our needs. 

Last week, Connor briefly met the sheep and cattle as well....  

His donkey training paid off.  The cows were wound up and rowdy, but on the other side of a fence so he ignored them altogether.  He was interested in the sheep, but respectful and quiet.  He looked at them, they looked at him, I asked him to go around and off he went...

leaving the sheep to their own contemplations.  

All in all, I am very happy with how Connor is around all of the stock.  I can see that there is a lot of potential there if I wanted to teach him to be a working dog, but I think we would both also be perfectly happy going no farther with it than he has already.  He is proving to be an exceptional hiking dog and that will likely be good enough for us.  He has certainly achieved the "cautious, respectful and alert" that I look for.  Where, if anywhere, we go from here is up for debate.