by Donna Hurlock, M.D. (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)
Dr. Donna Hurlock here discusses instruction in laser surgery technique. The use of live animals in these courses has been of concern to many physicians, and alternative training methods are readily available. Dr. Hurlock is a gynecologist in Alexandria, Virginia. She received her MD degree at the University of Maryland and completed her residency at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C
Several years ago I took part in a laser surgery training course designed to teach laser laparoscopy in the field of gynecology. Part of this training course included a laboratory session performing surgical procedures on "anesthetized" live rabbits. What I experienced during this course has played a great role in my attitudes toward animal use since that time.
The course was designed to teach laser techniques while performing laparoscopy on human beings. There have been hundreds of other similar courses in the last several years, many of which have also used rabbits to "enhance" the surgical training experience. The organizers of these courses charge fees, frequently over $1000 for a weekend course.
After a slide presentation, the attendees of the course were taken to a room where approximately a dozen live rabbits were laid out on tables, supposedly under anesthesia. A veterinarian was present to monitor the anesthesia. We were broken into groups and instructed to make incisions in these rabbits' abdomens and place a telescope-like instrument called a laparoscope into their abdominal cavities. The cavities were inflated with gas and then laser was used through this telescope to essentially burn any tissues that we desired to burn. It was expected that these animals would be sacrificed at the end of the procedure, therefore whatever damage we caused was not problematic -- not problematic to us anyway.
However, all did not go as planned. During this session a number of rabbits began to come out of anesthesia. As they woke up, they began to cry out as their internal organs were burned with the laser. The veterinarian did not even seem to notice the cries, nor do much to help the animals. Listening to the cries of these animals screaming in pain was one of the most horrible experiences I have ever had. Many of the animals died during the training session and rest died at the end.
They claim that this laboratory teaching experience is an integral part of teaching laser laparoscopy. I disagree. Throughout my eight years of medical school and Ob/Gyn residency training, I learned dozens of surgical procedures. Like all residents, I learned by first watching and then assisting on operations being performed on living human beings. At no time during these eight years did I need to participate in an animal laboratory in order to learn a procedure. I have also done extensive laser training aside from this live animal course, and have learned all of these techniques under supervision on living human beings. Like other surgical experiences, the fine points of techniques are learned by repeatedly using the laser in the operating room while doing surgical procedures on patients. There is little difference between using a laser and using a scalpel when it comes to learning how to make an incision. Learning how to burn holes in rabbits' intestines certainly did not help me be a better gynecologist.
If one wants to see the effect of a laser on tissue, one can do this easily by aiming the laser at an orange or a vegetable. In fact, some training courses that do not use live animals do use tissue such as beef tongue, chicken parts or other meat products that would be obtained in a grocery store. Although I do not feel that even that is necessary, it would certainly be preferable to subjecting living animals to such a painful death.
Yet another alternative is to use artificial human torsos that have been specifically constructed by various companies to simulate the organs of real human body. These torsos, similar to sophisticated mannequins, can be custom designed and reused many times.
These training courses are repeated on almost a weekly basis throughout this country. I would hope that they would utilize teaching methods that conform to a more ethical standard.