Medical imaging career demanded change

Dr. John Pharr with his two Australian shepherds, Booster (left) and Brodie. Photo: Myrna MacDonald.

Dr. John Pharr with his two Australian shepherds, Booster (left) and Brodie. Photo: Myrna MacDonald.

Veterinary radiologist Dr. John Pharr has always embraced change and the opportunity to learn — and that thirst for knowledge has defined his career at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

“Things are always changing, and that never stops,” reflects Pharr, who retired from the WCVM’s Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences on June 30.

“I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and I’ve never stopped finding new things. Not only the technology but also the way the findings appear — there’s always something new that will come along, something that I’ve never seen before.”

Since Pharr first came to the WCVM in 1972, there have been tremendous advances in the field of medical imaging, an area of specialization that he happened upon during his third year of veterinary school at the University of California Davis (UC Davis).

Pharr decided to enter the radiology residency program at UC Davis after realizing that his artistic abilities gave him an advantage at analyzing images, a process that he describes as “figuring out puzzles.” And when a radiology position opened up at the WCVM before his residency was complete, one of Pharr’s mentors recommended that he apply.

“He felt that I needed more self-confidence, and he was right,” says Pharr. “It was good for me. I didn’t have anybody else to fall back on for help. When I made a decision, it was mine.”

Although he planned to stay for nine months, Pharr spent three years at the WCVM before taking an educational leave and returning to his home state of California to complete the radiology residency program at UC Davis. He became board certified with the American College of Veterinary Radiology (ACVR) in 1976.

Pharr recalls that 1976 was also the year that he saw ultrasound for the first time. Up until then, a typical radiology residency included diagnostic radiology, radiation therapy and a little bit of nuclear medicine.

“Ultrasound was in its infancy back then,” Pharr recalls. “It was very time consuming, and the patient had to sit still and hold their breath — how many dogs and cats are going to do that! So I just looked at this and the poor image quality produced and concluded that ultrasound wouldn’t have any value in veterinary medicine.”

By 1982, ultrasound technology had changed, and so had Pharr’s opinion about its usefulness. He took a sabbatical leave and returned to UC Davis where he spent a year learning ultrasonography from the ground up. He’s now been using it for 30 years.

That’s just one example of the changes in technology that Pharr has seen since he began his career in radiology.

“You can’t get stale,” says Pharr. “We haven’t even fully explored what we can do with our own MRI, CT and ultrasound [equipment]. And the people who are following me are going to have new things to entertain them as well. Now the PET-CT (positron emission tomography-computed tomography) and the synchrotron are being used.”

Pharr has not only embraced the changes, he’s worked hard to advocate for the purchase of new and upgraded equipment, and his hard work has brought huge benefits for the college.

For example, the WCVM was the first veterinary school in Canada to have its own MRI – an amazing diagnostic tool that has been a tremendous asset for clinicians, researchers and students. The veterinary college recently replaced its original MRI machine with a newer model and added a standing MRI for equine patients.

While Pharr has always been enthusiastic about the huge advancements in diagnostic equipment, he’s also been a dedicated teacher who’s enjoyed sharing his expertise with the students, particularly the veterinary students when they are first exposed to radiology.

Over the years, Pharr has established a collection of copy films that he describes as “pet referrals,” all interesting cases that he used as teaching tools to help the students recognize some of the images that they’re going to see once they’re out in practice.

“It’s fun to take somebody that doesn’t know anything about a subject and help them learn what they’ll need to know as a practicing vet,” Pharr explains. “It’s the idea of helping them to get there. Some find it easier than others, but we give them the tools and as much experience as we can throw at them. And we hope that when they leave, they’ll be reasonably confident.”

He’s also made a huge commitment to research at the WCVM and was instrumental in establishing the Companion Animal Health Research Fund (CAHF) — a highly successful fund which has facilitated clinical research by providing research grants and fellowships since its establishment in 1978.

Besides serving as the research fund’s chair for a number of years, Pharr was the founding editor of the CAHF’s newsletter, Vet Topics — a job he maintained until his retirement in June.

Pharr has also played a major role in the college’s overall research efforts, often as a collaborator working with research teams on a variety of projects that require image analysis. The WCVM’s research program has greatly benefited from his diligence in acquiring new diagnostic equipment.

One of his early projects, which was the first research study funded by the CAHF, involved travelling to Yellowknife and radiographing more than 50 Eskimo dogs — a breed that was nearly extinct some years earlier. Pharr and Valorie Beauregard, an anesthesiology technologist, worked together in primitive conditions to screen all of the semi-feral dogs for hip dysplasia.

“We had to take their X-ray machine outside because I wasn’t going to drag those half-wild animals into the tiny vet clinic. We had the machine set up at the end of such a long extension cord that it wasn’t producing enough power,” recalls Pharr. “It involved several hours of dog wrestling and was quite the experience!”

As Pharr looks back on all of the changes that have taken place in radiology and on his many accomplishments at the WCVM, he is most gratified by the role he’s played in teaching the students, both undergraduate and graduate.

“I’m very proud of having worked at this school because there are schools with way more money and way more equipment and way more staff, but I don’t think there’s a school in the world that produces a better vet than this school.

“I think that’s why our program here is so damned good.”

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