High-speed reflective learning

01 July 2014, at 1:00am

Graham Duncanson has been having the time of his life careering down the ice in Switzerland and handling a delicate operation on a camel in Germany – and recalls an earlier time in Kenya.

I WAS lucky enough on the second day of 2014 to ride on a four-man bob sledge on the only track in France, which is at La Plagne.

Some of you might not think this was lucky. It is a particularly dangerous sport and, surprise, surprise, I was not covered by my Saga Travel Insurance. However, my daughter Amelia was on hand with strict instructions not to waste money bringing my body home but to bury me on-site. This would not have been easy in the frozen rocky terrain of the Alps.

She was very happy with this arrangement as she is a keen skier and so would be pleased to visit my grave at least once a year! I was particularly pleased to do the run as my father as a 23-year-old had 90 years earlier been on the Cresta Run in St Moritz in Switzerland.

The sport started soon after the start of the 20th century in St Moritz on the streets of the village. As it soon became very dangerous, the owner of the Kulm Hotel had a special track made from St Moritz to the village of Cresta.

The modern sledge, or “four-man bob”, is 12-and-a-half feet long. Obviously, as a down-hill race, the heavier the crew the better. There is, however, a restriction of 630kg for the total weight of the bob and four crew. We travelled at speeds in excess of 120km per hour for just under a minute. Our team was particularly elated to clock the fastest speed this season of 123km per hour. With several months of the season left I doubt if we will keep our record.

Now I am sure by now you are thinking, whatever has this got to do with “reflective learning”? Amelia, like I suspect many children, used to try to hold her breath when going through a tunnel when travelling in a car. This is excellent training for swimming underwater. Our bob coach, however, was very rm about any breath- holding. He told us it was vital that we continued to breathe with fairly regular shallow breaths.

It was such a terrifying experience when we had reached top speed that I suspect I would have held my breath in terror. I listened to his advice and kept a shallow regular breathing rhythm. Even aged 69 I had no problems. 

I had cause to reflect on the following day as Amelia and I happened to share a chair-lift with a middle-aged gentleman and his son. He asked us what we did for a living. My daughter explained that she had under six months to go before she, hopefully, qualified as a veterinary surgeon at Cambridge. She explained that I had qualified from Bristol over 47 years ago. It was interesting that the middle- aged gentleman was a vascular surgeon from Salisbury and his son was reading bioscience and hoped eventually to become a doctor.

It was a long cold lift and to pass the time I inquired about the dangers of breath holding when travelling at high speeds, experiencing large “G” forces at altitude. The surgeon explained that severe cranial haemorrhages would appear to be the norm! The likelihood of cardiac infarction in elderly men was extremely high.

On reflection, riding a bob might have been a colourful experience for my father aged 23, even in an era with fairly unsophisticated medical facilities; for me sudden death was a distinct possibility. Saga insurance can relax: I won’t be volunteering to represent Great Britain in the four-man bob event at the Winter Olympics. In fact, if I had done my homework before the trip and then reflected on my learning, I would not have made the ride. However, I am still alive and well so actually I am glad I did it.

Amelia and I flew home from France to Gatwick on 4th January. She returned for further study at Cambridge. I proceeded to Stansted to y out to help a veterinary friend in Germany to castrate a seven-year-old camel the next day. How do I know anything about castrating camels? Like my father, I had a misspent youth.

While he was 23 he was riding the Cresta Run. When I was 23 I was castrating camels in Northern Kenya. In fact there were more than a million camels in Kenya so I had many to practise on. You can forget all the damn-fool stories about two bricks and keeping your thumbs out of the way.

Camels are very easily sedated with intramuscular xylazine at standard cattle doses for medium sedation. They will soon adopt the “kush” position, i.e. sternal recumbency. Local anaesthetic should be injected along the likely incision line in the scrotum and into the two testicular cords. In fact, it is safe to use a straightforward open castration technique, as in mature bulls, just twisting and pulling the testicles. 

My German colleague, Jens Cramer, said he would prefer to use his emasculators and so that is what we did. The camel received tetanus antitoxin (TAT), antibiotics and NSAIDs. All went well and the camel rose to his feet and started eating hay in just over 30 minutes.

Talking with veterinary colleagues from different countries is always interesting and worthwhile. Jens was an excellent veterinarian but it was his father who was so remarkable. He was still in full-time large animal practice at the age of 82. He attended two calving cows in the 24 hours I was in Germany. I hope I will be able to continue in full-time large animal practice into my 70s – provided I don’t do any more bob runs!

Circus involvement

Sadly, I am still in grave danger of not surviving into my 70s on account of my friendship with Emma Milne. I am sure many readers will be aware that Emma is a marvellous champion of animal welfare.

As a trustee of the BVA AWF, she raised £5,500 by swimming 5km last year. However, she is likely to kill me as this camel was owned by a circus. Emma is strongly opposed to use of animals in circuses.

I do respect her views and having been dealing with circus animals for over 40 years I entirely agree that there are often welfare issues.

The “Great Indian Circus” came to Mombasa in 1967. I was only 23 and I am sure the veterinary work caused my hair to start turning grey. I had to carry out a caesarean section on a lioness which had dead cubs.

We managed to give her acetylpromazine intramuscularly by using the circus’ crush cage. We gave her a general anaesthetic by giving her pentobarbitone intravenously to effect into the saphenous vein, by pulling her hind leg through the bars of her cage. Actually the surgery was straightforward; it was the GA which was particularly scary.

The circus left Mombasa by boat to Mauritius. The veterinary authorities in Mauritius required that all the animals received a protozoalcidal dose of a trypanocide within 14 days of departure. Giving this to the dogs, horses, camels and chimpanzees was a challenge for a new grad.

Giving such an injection to three elephants caused a real adrenaline rush. The elephants were trained to go down into sternal recumbency. The two females tolerated their injections behind the ear stoically, but they did whack me with their trunks to show their displeasure. What would the male do? To try to avoid being whacked by his trunk, I decided to lean over his neck once he was lying down and inject him so that in theory he would lash out with his trunk on the side which hurt and not actually at me.

The best made plans can go horribly wrong. As I gave the injection he gave a roar and leapt to his feet. I fell off his neck and landed in a heap under his massive head and tusks. He could have crushed me with one of his front feet, he could have gored me with his tusks or he could have just thrown me up in the air with his trunk.

I looked into his wise old eyes. I am sure he smiled. He just smelled me from head to toe with his trunk. I am sure he was saying, “If I ever smell you again young man, beware.”

In conclusion, I reflect that although I still have nightmares about that experience, I am much more frightened of Emma Milne and will join her campaign to ban the involvement of animals in circuses.