Sunday, July 18, 2010

Anesthesia Class 2012 & The Saber-Tooth Tiger

Just two more sets of exams to grade (renal physiology) and I’m done teaching for this academic year! I will have all of August and the first week of September off. Teaching science (physics, biochemistry, molecular biology, anatomy and physiology of all body systems) in a leading nurse anesthesia program is a rewarding challenge that I’ve taken on for thirty-six years now, partly because the students are so appreciative.

On Thursday during a break in the final lecture, the students surprised me with a cake and a gift. The students will be moving into the second year of the three-year master degree program in nurse anesthesia (thus the “Class of 2012” on the cake), and I will greet the next wave of fledglings in September.

Typically the students commemorate our last academic interaction with references to things I often say when teaching. Something I often mention when lecturing is the “saber-tooth tiger.” Look closely at the upper left corner of the cake and you will see the figure of a tiger (closest thing the students could find to a saber-tooth tiger).

I offer an attack by a saber-tooth tiger as an example of a natural stress situation in response to which the actions of stress hormones and sympathetic nervous fight-or-flight behavior are adaptive. The medical dilemma is that we have ice-age bodies but live in a modern age in which the stressor is job loss, debt, divorce, or a traffic jam – not a saber-tooth tiger attack! The physiological stress responses that have evolved (e.g., increased blood glucose and fatty acids, increased cardiac output) do not help us survive modern stressors but instead, combined with over-plentiful calories and sedentary lifestyle, lead to our demise (diabetes mellitus, atherosclerosis and cardiovascular accidents)! So there are lots of references to saber-tooth tigers and their prey when I’m lecturing on sympathetic nervous system and hormone effects like those of glucocorticoids and catecholamines. Hence, there is a tiger (and a bear for good measure) on the cake.

On a more practical level, the students have demonstrated their observational acuity by bestowing upon me a new lab coat. (My old lab coats reflect the many years I’ve been teaching.) The lab coat is exactly the style I like, and unlike any I ever had before, is beautifully embroidered with my name.

I will think of the class of 2012 whenever I look at the animal figures from the cake or whenever I put on my new lab coat. This coat will be donned for the first time on September 9th, when the shepherding of students through the process of building a scientific foundation for their profession in anesthesia begins again.