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One of the coolest ways to learn...

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01 June 2010, at 1:00am

Next year... Snowscene heads for Italy in March 2011 and the pleasures of the luxurious Hotel Principe di Piemonte in Sestriere, allowing delegates to experience the sweet delights of the Milky Way ski area. Clinical CPD will be provided by Mike Davies from the Nottingham vet school, talking on geriatric medicine, whilst the non-clinical CPD comes courtesy of Hazlewood’s Mark Beaney, who will address topics dear to the hearts of many vets as he will cover matters such as financial know-how, tax planning, buying into a business, and exit strategies and retirement. Further details from the SPVS office on 01926 410454 or e-mail office@spvs.org.uk.

YOU could spot them easily. Like hardened drug addicts, maybe. Pale faces. Dark rings under their eyes. A tendency to yawn repeatedly. They were the ones who had opted to extend their fix by an extra two days. 

Already it was beginning to show, and it was only Sunday. Uncoordination. Falling over a lot. An inclination to do things that a saner person wouldn’t consider. Their addiction was starting to take its toll. 

Then again, they weren’t hugely different from the rest of us. We were all – well, most of us – a bit uncoordinated, falling over a lot, doing things which would cause more rationally-minded people to tut disapprovingly. But deep down we are all creatures of habit. 

We may think we can resist temptation, we can fondly fool ourselves that we have the willpower to avoid becoming addicted to something, but then an inner compulsion makes us revert to type, so – for some of us at least – if it’s March, we’re on the dangerously slippery downhill slope of another trip. 

The SPVS/Fort Dodge Snowscene trip, that is; an irresistible compulsion for those vets who cannot fight the attraction of mixing professional learning with outdoor sports, an annual fix which gives the participants a “high” in more than one sense of the word. 

This year was slightly different, however. Many of us had respected our diurnal rhythms and opted to travel by day, but the hardened addicts had left home early to come by Eurostar, an overnight haul straight through from London and across France that meant an upright seat with little chance of sleep, followed by a taxi transfer up the mountain when all self-respecting vets were still comfortably dead to the world, and a surreal breakfast at the hotel in the ghostly pre-dawn before gathering impatiently at the foot of the piste waiting for the lifts to open at an hour when most skiers are just wondering if another croissant and cafe crème before they slip into their salopettes will adversely affect their performance on the slopes.  

For these dedicated devotees it meant the chance to have two extra days in the snow, but it also meant severe sleep deprivation which was never going to be easy to overcome, given the demands of the week that lay in front of them. 

Work hard and play hard is the unwritten motto of many vets, and nowhere is it better exemplified than when they gather to do some serious CPD and, whatever you may think, the annual foray into the mountains for both enthusiastic experts and naive newcomers is far from all play and no work. 

Challengingly early 

Lectures with a prompt 8am start means that breakfast at a challengingly-early hour is no longer just the preserve of those who have taken an overnight train ride, and reassembling each evening at 6pm after a heady day in the fresh air takes some commitment. 

Sneer not, however; the delegates turned out in force for the sessions and the level of questioning and comments confirmed that no one could nod off – even though the clinical topic under consideration was anaesthesia and analgesia. 

Keeping us awake with some sparkling lectures was Liz Leece from the Cambridge vet school, successfully encompassing a diversity of topics such as rational fluid therapy, sensible head trauma management, objective pain assessment and effective resuscitation methods. 

Liz also comprehensively covered the complexities of narcotics, opioids and other such drugs, steering us through the myriad pharmacological variables available for different indications and species and delivering to delegates an excellent revision of existing knowledge coupled with interesting information on newer drugs and techniques, with some gems thrown in for good measure. 

Did you know, for example, that the only class of drug which gives REM sleep, and thus avoids hallucinations in patients, is that of the alpha-2 agonists such as meditomidine? Or that one in 10 cats is resistant to the effects of buprenorphine; the same drug can be ineffective in some red-haired people but intriguingly, or disappointingly, it is not necessarily ginger-coated animals that show this tendency in the feline species. And ketamine, that most mysterious of drugs, is being used successfully to alleviate phantom limb pain in amputees. 

Well worth considering 

There was the reminder that there are several alternatives to NSAIDs and the usual opioids when it comes to analgesia – drugs such as tramadol, gabapentin and the like – which are well worth considering in certain situations, and we learnt that local pain relief may be used as an adjunct to systemic analgesia in certain situations, for example by employing topical nerve blocks during facial reconstruction surgery after jaw fractures. 

Leading the way with the nonclinical CPD was Caroline Johnson, well known in the profession for her cheerful, no-nonsense presentations on subjects such as marketing, teambuilding and business development. She followed three inter-linked themes for the week: leadership and motivation, communication, and the management of change. 

The danger with many speakers when dealing with these sorts of topics is that they can so easily descend into philosophical presentations full of theoretical notions and technical babblespeak, but no chance of that here. Instead, we had short, punchy, interactive sessions where Caroline employed anecdotes and real-life situations to illustrate the essential points. 

So, for instance, the leadership displayed by a local Brown Owl with her pack of Brownies can encompass the same abilities as those needed to lead a sales force or a veterinary team. Other examples helped us understand what makes for good and bad communication, and although we all know that communication is often more about how we say something rather than what words we use, it’s important to appreciate the power of speech.

As any politician can tell you, it’s essential to choose words carefully, and the artful use of language is a book in itself, but consider the following. If you say to someone (as one might do in such a situation) “You’re a really good skier but your technique could be improved” and compare it with “Your technique could be improved but you’re a really good skier”, what’s the message that comes across? 

People hear the second part of the sentence and not the first. We need to choose how we say things; beware that little word “but”. It carries all sorts of negative implications, so use the word “and” wherever possible instead. 

What else is worth passing on? How about those words heard all-too-commonly after Christmas, “I’m trying to lose weight”? Whenever someone says this, it suggests they’re doomed to failure before even starting their diet – so “try” has all sorts of poor definitions too and we need to consider that when we’re in a consultation or speaking to the work team. 

And finally, Caroline went through why people fear change and how to help a team come through some sort of major alteration or modification in the workplace – not always easy, but easier if planned properly and carried through carefully.

Ideal launch pad 

Interesting though the lectures were (and yes they were good) the week wasn’t just about formal CPD. St Martin is the ideal launch pad into the almost limitless possibilities that exist for skiers of any standard within the vast area of les Trois Vallees, and when we weren’t working hard in the lectures we made the most of it. 

From the gentlest of blue runs to the jaw-dropping horrors of the steepest blacks, we found that there was indeed something for everyone. It was possible to make the excursion across the mountain ranges to the fourvillages-in-one resort of Courcheval for lunch – or maybe just for a coffee, when one noted the prices. 

Not for nothing is it known as Paris en montagne, although with Courcheval prices as high as Mont Blanc, one suspects that even the most expensive Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant would be a cheaper alternative at lunchtime. 

The more intrepid explorers were fortunate to have local resident and vet Alan Leyland volunteer as a mountain guide, and the resolute group that followed him quickly realised that skiing off piste (and this was real off piste, not just a few metres away from the coloured poles) was nothing, absolutely nothing like staying on the marked trails.

Winter wilderness 

Far into the back country, well out of sight of any ski lift – or indeed any man-made structure – Alan showed us ways through a winter wilderness that was as eerily silent as it was stunningly beautiful – hidden valleys, frozen lakes, staggeringly steep descents and pencilthin couloirs that no one would have dreamt of attempting without someone to show us the way (or at least someone to give us a push at the top if it looked as if we were hesitating). 

The skiers who did jump into the Becca and Poubelle couloirs high above the Meribel valley found the experience both terrifying and exhilarating, although it was notable that as this group (the self-styled hommes des couloirs) recounted their stories at the bar later, the descents got ever-steeper and evernarrower as the evening wore on, and their listeners tended to nod off after an hour or so. 

More dramatically, one afternoon in a lonely valley we watched helplessly as a group of Germans, skiing opposite us high on a precipitous face, started an avalanche and were swept away like sticks down a waterfall – a salutary reminder that the mountains in winter can be much more dangerous than we sometimes appreciate or understand. Incredibly, the group walked out alive but without their equipment, which was left buried deep under tonnes of fallen snow. 

Saner or more circumspect skiers and boarders found just as much delight on-piste, and a few even discarded their skis to defy gravity and enjoy the delights of walking up mountains following the Grande Randonnée marked paths, or even just relaxed in a deckchair on the hotel’s terrace, thus demonstrating that a winter break can be many things to many people. 

For most of us, the arrival of the last morning meant mixed feelings; the regrets of another Snowscene coming successfully to an end competing with a sense of relief that we didn’t need to punish our tired bodies with a further day of exertions on the slopes. 

But for the real addicts there was still another day’s gruelling graft on the piste and the doubtful delights of a long, long train journey home.