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Students Win National Palpation Championship

By Ben Hohenstatt, '14

Eight students from Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine brought home the national title in palpation, once again solidifying Auburn’s reputation in this important medical examination technique. 

The third-year professional students won the 2014 National Champion Bovine Palpation competition, held during the Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) annual conference in Fort Collins, Colo.

For more than 14 years, Auburn veterinary students have consistently outscored students from other veterinary programs in both the written test and manual examinations. From 2000-2005, Auburn teams recorded six consecutive first place finishes.

This year’s winning team consisted of Patrick Godfrey of Danville, Ky.; Brannon Rickman of Huntsville; Cole Goracke of Punta Gorda, Fla.; Stephen Getz of Petersburg, W.V.; Sheila Wilson of Owenton, Ky.; William Franklin of Georgetown, Ky.; Chris Jolly of Versailles, Ky.; and Kelcie Theis of Minnetonka, Minn.

Dr. Julie Gard, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences who teaches theriogenology, says it’s an honor for students to be a member of the Auburn team because the competition is stiff. “We usually take five or six students out of the 20-25 people who take the test to be on the team, but this year we had a three-way tie.”

Gard, who is the team’s coach, said the competition, and the hard work, pay off. “Being able to successfully palpate helps students tremendously. It gives them an extremely usable tool as well as the confidence they need when they go into the workforce.”

She said the history of the team’s success, going back to its start with Dr. Gatz Riddell, now an emeritus professor at Auburn, and the commitment to practice is what makes the team members successful. “We win, historically, because we prepare so much,” said Gard, who was a resident under Riddell and helped with the early teams.

“Auburn’s first palpation team was in ’96, and since 1999 or 2000, we’ve dominated,” said Dr. Chance Armstrong, a resident in theriogenology at the college and past member of the palpation team. “We’ve always been the team to beat.” 

Palpation is the medical process of a manual examination, and palpation exams are used in artificial insemination, non-surgical recovery of embryos and diagnosing pregnancy among other medical procedures.

Patrick Godfrey, who placed first as an individual, chalked up the team’s performance to a full year of practice. The sentiment was echoed by teammate William Franklin.  “Practice, practice, practice,” Franklin said. “We practiced a couple of hours each week for an entire year.”

In order to accommodate their busy student schedules and the dairy cow biologic schedules, practices were often held as early as 3 a.m. “As a veterinary student, you don’t have much free time, which makes being on the palpation team a huge commitment,” Armstrong said. “They really pushed themselves—they had the guts, now they’ve received the glory.”

Although the schedule sounds grueling, for many of the team members the practice was an incentive to take the prerequisite test and try to join the palpation team.  “The main thing is getting more palpation experience,” Getz said.

The chance to palpate alongside and receive advice from Auburn’s large animal theriogenology faculty, including Drs. Robert Carson and James Wenzel, was another perk of making the team. “We have the best mentors,” Theis said.

Members of the team said friendly internal competition also pushed the team toward success. “I felt I was in competition with the team,” Wilson said. “As one of only two girls on the team, Kelcie made me want to be better.”

However, the team’s shared goal was always more important than personal accolades.  “It’s ultimately about Auburn University winning,” Wilson said.

Although the specifics of the palpation competition vary slightly from year to year depending on the school hosting the symposium, generally competition consists of three main activities: a written exam, tract identification and palpating a cow.

It was universally agreed that blind identifying tract was the most difficult part of the competition. During this portion, students have their vision obstructed and must correctly identify and describe organs and reproductive tracts.

“Tracts are the most difficult part,” Franklin said. “That got us ready for the written part, and the actual cow is more realistic.”

Points are awarded on the accuracy used to describe size, location and stage of pregnancy. “It sounds weird, but one of our tricks is measuring our fingers,” Wilson said. “It makes estimating the size of the organs and tracts much easier.”

Although the palpation team has placed every year it has competed, the team had not placed first since 2011. “It’s great to win for Auburn,” said Goracke. “We are able to continue the tradition of being on top.”



Front row from left: Dr. Julie Gard, Sheila Wilson, Stephen Getz, Cole Goracke and Kelcie Theis. Back row from left: Dr. Chance Armstrong, Patrick Godfrey, William Franklin, Chris Jolly, Brannon Rickman and Dr. Robert Carson.

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