Bambi Syndrome

Life changes in a heartbeat.

In the “Events of the Cardiac Cycle” lab, four students are assigned to each dog. Instructions: Inject the live dog with epinephrine and study the EKG. Sever cardiac nerves. Carve open the chest and shock the heart. As the dog’s blood pressure drops, remove the heart. Now, stab the aorta with a scissor blade and slice open the ventricle. Check for heartworms. Bag the carcass, and clean your instruments and work station.

To be a healer, I’m being forced to kill. But murder is not part of my curriculum. So I sign the papers to drop out of medical school. But I can’t leave. With an apartment full of pets, no money for a U-Haul, and no clear destination, I’m unable to garner sympathy—even from my parents. My anatomy partner advises, “Just keep taking tests until you figure out what you want to do.”

At age twenty-two, I decide to fight for my life. In a petition, I state my personal intention not to kill, and circulate the petition to classmates. From among the 189 students, three share my moral objections and sign on. I circulate a second petition for others to support our right to opt out of animal labs, but no classmates sign due to “fear of being blacklisted from residencies.”

Then I send a letter to the physiology director stating that “I will not participate in animal experiments.”

“These are not animal experiments,” he responds. “They are experiences. Attendance is mandatory. You are assigned to Team 11B. An unexcused absence will compromise your teammates’ education and prevent your matriculation into the clinical core.”

So I forward my petition to the dean of medicine, who requires that I meet with him. I enter his office and sit in a large mahogany chair across from the sixty-year-old physician.

I begin with a personal statement of my values and priorities: “I am vegan. I do not eat or wear animal products. I am morally opposed to injur- ing animals and will not participate in these labs.”

He stares at me quizzically. Then—with an authoritarian, yet paternal, even loving tone—he diagnoses me with “Bambi Syndrome” and grants my exemption. I’m relieved that I will not have to kill a dog to become a doctor.

My relief is short-lived. The next week, while studying, I see a cart full of dogs wagging their tails. As they pass by my classroom, I panic. My vision narrows and blurs. My heart is racing and I feel like I’m going to faint.

An hour later, classmates emerge splattered with blood. Men boast of their conquests. Bags overflow with carcasses—man’s best friend slaughtered in cold blood.

Walking home, I’m crying not only for the loss of our innocent, ever- faithful friends, but also for my classmates, methodically dehumanized right in front of me.

I cry myself to sleep holding my dog, Happy. The next morning, it’s impossible to return to class. With swollen eyelids, completely sealed shut, I can no longer bear to see the brutality.

Nearing graduation, we’re all so excited. While completing residency applications, fellow classmates beg me to write their personal statements for them.

“But a personal statement is personal,” I say. “How could I possibly write your personal statement?” In the end, my classmates are blacklisted, not from their residencies, but from their own identities. Medical education too often robs us of our souls, ourselves—our very humanity.

Bambi Syndrome saved my life. I’ve never been so happy to be diagnosed with a disease.

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Pamela Wible, M.D., is a family physician and founder of the ideal medical care movement. Watch her TEDx talk on ideal care. Excerpt from chapter 41 of Pet Goats & Pap Smears.

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22 comments on “Bambi Syndrome
  1. Al says:

    I couldn’t even pith a frog in medical school. Hurting any animal makes me physically ill.

  2. A lot of third year medical students run into a similar problem when they are on their clerkships; they like whatever clerkship they are currently working on, because each day is a novel experience.

  3. vicki says:

    What a horrifying ordeal for the dogs and students! Seems strange for students who will become healers, life savers, to be taught in this way that is so lacking respect for life and that willfully causes a living being to suffer. Perhaps this is one reason some medical professionals seem to not give a damn about their patients much. Just a thought…..

  4. maria Bowmer says:

    Oh, I am so proud of you . What a brave thing to do. I couldnt hurt any animal either , much less a dog or cat. Nor raccoon or skunk. So to be a doctor you have to kill dogs. Tears are coming just thinking about it .

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Horrific. Though I was exempted, I witnessed the methodical mass dehumanization of my classmates. Yes, when medical students rip out dogs’ hearts, they are essentially ripping out their own hearts too. If you’ve ever met a heartless doctor, now you know why . . .

  5. Simon Cummings says:

    Hi Pam,

    Love your work although, not understanding the medical reimbursement system in the US, i don’t know how you pay the bills.

    Re this post; the question that I would ask is “was it really necessary to do what you (med students) did?” I suppose this must have been a few years ago but I still don’t think that the “sacrifice” of those poor animals was needed for you to learn about the control and the plumbing of the human heart.

    Keep up the great work.

    Simon

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      100% unjustified and unnecessary. These experiments were “experiences” with one purpose: dehumanization and perpetuation of the failed reductionist medical model that continues to take the lives of innocent animals, medical students, physicians, and patients.

  6. Gayle Roller says:

    Thank you for writing this.

  7. JR DNR says:

    I have had two experiences with Lions.

    With one experience, I went to the zoo. Except… instead of seeing lions up close and personal, I saw them from far away. I didn’t really learn anything at the zoo about the lions either. I saw them sleeping in the sun.

    With another experience, I was able to watch a documentary on lions. Due to modern technology, the camera men were able to get closeups of the lions in their natural habitat. Hunting. Grooming. Raising cubs. These were also explained by a narrator.

    I learned a lot more from the video.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Yes. I am a real fan of learning about nature through video documentaries instead of everyone showing up in mass in their SUVs to barge their way into the animal’s natural habitat. There are some places that should be off limits to humans. We really can create such a mess.

  8. Pamela Wible MD says:

    Just got this e-mail from a doctor: Pamela, I just read your talk (http://www.idealmedicalcare.org/blog/how-to-graduate-medical-school-without-killing-yourself/) for some reason I got started reading instead of watching.  I absolutely loved it.  I love that you stood up against dog lab when I was afraid to.  I killed a white German shepherd that day in dog lab.  I’ve never forgotten it and I’m crying now, at age 60. Thankfully UCSD ended dog labs in 1994 or so, right after we moved here to San Diego.

  9. Wendy says:

    I remember in physiology lab in my undergrad program at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the professor pithed a red-eared slider turtle and cut a hole into its shell over its chest. It was our assignment to partially dissect the heart out of its body and string it up so that we could see the turtle’s blood pulsing through the two chambers, and the changes in heart rate and so on in response to different solutions.

    I wept the entire period. But I stuck with it because damn it, if that sweet little turtle was going to die — and it was — I was going to make sure I honored its life by learning everything it could teach me.

    My classmates, a team of 20-somethings, thought that I was a complete freak, anyway. I was already old enough to be their mother, and obviously, something was wrong with me.

    I hate myself for not stopping that stupid experiment. For not going to the dean and demanding that the school immediately stop live animal experimentation.
    I still — oh. I can’t think about it.

  10. a.patient says:

    After reading your story… it in my opinion is just the setting to break humans. If you learn to “protect yourself” and become numb to suffering with mammals other than humans… It becomes easy to follow the money and peoples suffering is ignored or worse yet inflicted by those “healers.” Why, do they want to break people…?

    I admire that you had the guts to stand up for what you believe in – even when it was not a popular view. Speak up – zero tolerance… etc. GOOD ADVICE
    You write very well.
    I have worked with many animals. I never hurt them, We were helpers. Thru good times and bad… especially in their deaths…
    When you look into yourself – there is no need to be afraid of emotion in caring. I think it would make for better patient care. It’s good to touch your inner self.
    The system is ment to generate money … that’s easier to follow than your heart for the doctors i have run into. We need to work together – and do the right things

  11. Beth the Dog Lover says:

    I just want to say that I am sorry that you and your fellow students AND the dogs had to go through this unnecessary learning ‘experience.’ Thank you for standing up for yourself and for the respect of all creatures.

  12. I attended Medical School in The Netherlands. No, the only thing we were required to do is cut open an eye from a cow, that wasn’t so bad, just jiggly and gross at the time. However, once I joined the Neuro Anatomy Division as a Student Assistant and wanted to help/learn about the way the brain deals with micturation I was asked to care for, experiment, then kill, a cat. No way, I dissected cadavers (since they were dead already) but did not want to kill anything alive. I am a physician and I care a lot about my patients. You will get trough Medical School and Residency without the need to kill and “experience”…

  13. Fabiola says:

    I cannot believe that this is common practice in USA. I studied medicine in Austria and am practicing in the UK.
    Atrocious!
    I am amazed that you stood up to the murderers. If this is still ongoing than it must be stopped!
    I am vegetarian and find it bad enough that we kill animals to eat but this is just to torture and murder!
    Am really upset.
    Animal experimentation is hugely regulated in the UK under Home Office regulation and you can only hurt and kill an animal if it a very specific experiment which will lead to the discovery of important drug or treatment. But what you and our colleague from Netherlands describe does not serve humanity; but is a symptom and sign of dehumanisation.
    Are we just beasts then?

  14. Wayne Smith says:

    I’m with you, Pamela. I took a much needed summer job between my 1st and 2nd years of med school in the neuroanatomy research lab. I walked in the lab meet the neurosurgeon who was running the project and saw cages full of dogs that would be killed as a result of our research. I couldn’t sleep that night and agonized over what kind of reputation I would have if I quit the job, (not to mention how I would pay my bills over the summer ) but, I knew there was no way I could do the research I had been hired to perform. At any rate, I asked to see the neurosurgeon when I showed up the next day and apologetically told him of my emotional concerns regarding killing innocent animals and that I was quitting the job. To his credit and to my great relief, he understood completely and actually gave me a recommendation for a different research project. He said I was not the first student to have such reservations that he had encountered and I appreciate to this day his empathy, a quality he obviously had not lost for his students. That lesson in compassion far outweighed anything else I learned that summer.

  15. Larry says:

    Shalom,

    Please purchase:

    WILFULL BLINDNESS by Margaret Heffernan!

    You will be amazed by what you read & it will help you to continue to be the person that you are – A DECENT HUMAN BEING!

  16. Hi Pamela,
    I just read your article in the current Nevada Medical Board Bulletin, and clicked on this link. You sound like a very sensitive and caring person — that’s why I was surprised by your article entitled, “Bambi Syndrome.” You make a point of stating your Dean of Medicine was sixty-four years old. Your implication is very clear, and your lack of sensitivity in this regard is disappointing. Sixty-four year old physicians are not immune from suicide, the issue that you profess to be so dear to you. I am a Board Certified Family Physician in my sixties, practicing medicine full time in Nevada. Although some outsiders perhaps deem me as a successful paragon to be emulated, I have been disappointed with so many aspects of the medical profession, and of my career for thirty years. Yet you make it sound like your sixty-four year old dean is the enemy, as if only younger physicians have the capacity for empathy, understanding, sensitivity and good judgement. You seem to have found your little niche presenting yourself as the sensitive and caring one, and writing articles that perhaps build your own self-esteem in this regard, but just may be you owe an apology to the generation of physicians who precede you, who have also suffered as a result of their medical career decisions, and all of the stress and internal conflicts that come with being a physician in the United States in the twenty-first century.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Thanks Robert for writing. I actually thank my dean for helping me an supporting me in ways that it took me 25 years to understand in my lecture here: http://www.idealmedicalcare.org/blog/how-to-graduate-medical-school-without-killing-yourself/

      I think the Bambi Syndrome article is a bit of a distraction from the physician suicide topic in the Nevada Medical Board Bulletin. I am fully aware of the high risk of suicide among male docs (especially older). I absolutely believe we all enter medicine with the best of intentions. Please know I am here as an advocate for all physicians and medical students.

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