Teaching vets all about skin diseases in Vienna

S.O.F.A. patron David Grant on teaching vets about skin diseases.

I had been a qualified vet for 7 years when I started to think about getting additional qualifications. Working in a King’s Road Fulham veterinary clinic in 1975, I came across my first case of demodicosis in a German shepherd dog. Although horrible to look at and seemingly impossible to cure I referred the dog to a colleague, Keith Thoday, who had just set up a specialty practice, and he cured the dog. This was the start of a friendship that continues today and I am godfather to his youngest daughter.  We were to meet up soon after at the Edinburgh veterinary college, where we were both lecturers, and ran the skin clinic together for a few years. My friend stayed and became a professor of veterinary dermatology. I decided that academia was not for me and I returned to London, but not before I had passed the exams for Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and with FRCVS after my name.

This opened up many doors, not least RCVS recognised dermatology specialist status, and I have seen many cases for colleagues, written a couple of books on the subject and lectured all over Europe and beyond, most recently in Mexico and China. First I had to learn how to lecture and I was very grateful for the help of another colleague David Lloyd. David had qualified with me and had since then travelled widely, mainly in Africa and acquired a PhD in the process. He was now heading up the dermatology department of our alma mater, the Royal Veterinary College, and whenever I was asked to do a talk I practiced it first in front of the academics. David also stayed in academia and became the Royal Veterinary College’s first professor of Veterinary Dermatology.

In 1992 a great opportunity came about. David had been approached by a German vet, Hans Koch, to set up a programme to teach vets dermatology –from the basics to a high level. Hans had identified that dermatology was not catered for very well in most colleges and students would be lucky to have a dozen lectures in the subject, yet skin diseases are by far the commonest that practicing vets will see. The proposal was for six weeks of intensive tuition spread over two years with distance learning in between. This began a lecturing partnership, which has been continuous since. Hans Koch named his organisation the European School of Advanced Veterinary Studies (ESAVS). David and I started it with dermatology but there are many other disciplines now, and thousands of vets have been trained with about a thousand just in dermatology.

We started in Luxembourg, a quaint little place that you can ‘do’ in not much more than a morning.  We had to bring all the laboratory materials from London and one year I drove to Luxembourg and back with bacteria, fungi and stains, only to be stopped by customs on the return journey. Goodness only knows what they would have done if they had bothered to check the live material stashed away, but as soon as they heard I was an RSPCA vet they let me go with obvious disappointment!

Cytology practical in progress. The vets are looking at cells obtained from various lumps and learning to decide whether they could be cancerous

After a few years, with one year in Barcelona, Hans Koch negotiated a very good deal with the Vienna veterinary school, and I have now visited Vienna twice a year for nearly 20 years. Until recently I didn’t have much time to explore the city. The facilities at the veterinary college, particularly the laboratories, are magnificent, (see above) and because the teaching has always been in vacation time we have had the campus mainly to ourselves. It has felt like a ghost town with huge academic department buildings and no one about-like a set from ‘The Prisoner’. The campus is situated in the outskirts with very few temptations either for tourism or food and we normally stayed in student accommodation. It has always been possible to get away for some nice meals in the centre, however, and travel in the Vienna metro (U-Bahn) and trams, is very straightforward and cheap. You can buy tickets on line with no problems at all. Once you have printed out the tickets you just have to carry them while travelling, although I have never been asked to show them. I think the fines for cheating are probably very high!

Part of the veterinary campus in August -35 degrees and no students

It’s enormous fun teaching the vets and seeing what tremendous progress is made. It makes for life-long friendships, and some marriages too, and last year in Krakow, at a conference, we met up with the original group of 1992. Several of them are now professors and all are specialists, with one coming from Australia. They are all still in contact with each other-including their teachers.

This year for the first time the student accommodation was booked up and we stayed in a hotel about ten minutes away by tram. This turned out to be a good thing. The Strandhotel, Alte Donau, doesn’t look much from the outside as it is on a busy main road. But behind are some quiet rooms with nice views over the old Danube (Alte Donau). The Alte Donau is one of my favourite parts of Vienna, very near the centre but with beautiful views, pleasant walks, recreational sports plus great rustic restaurants with views over the river. The nearest metro station to the hotel is a five minute walk and from there it is not much more than 15 minutes to the centre-Stefan Platz and the cathedral being a favourite spot. Nearby is one of Mozart’s homes, now a museum and worth the 10 euros to get in. There are numerous attractions to this stunning city and I fully intend to spend some time there in the future with my wife, and we will be staying at the Strandhotel.

View of the centre of Vienna from a restaurant on the Old Danube

It will be strange to miss out on the buzz you get from standing in front of a new group of vets knowing that they will likely become  lifelong friends, and nowadays with Facebook, fascinating to follow their lives and professional careers. But I have decided it is time to hand over the baton to someone younger, so next year in September I will be doing my lectures to the course 3 vets for the last time. Appropriately it will include a whole day on cats, which I always enjoy as they are fascinating creatures in health and disease, particularly of the skin!

By David Grant

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