Solving the puzzles of neurology

Clifford Petit wanted a pet of his own, and like most young boys, he was persistent in his efforts to get what he wanted.

After plenty of prodding and coaxing, his parents finally caved, and at 8 years old, he was finally allowed to have his first pet, a canary he named Pigey. Over the years, Pigey would be joined by a host of birds, frogs, and turtles.

“My parents would not allow a cat or dog or any animal that would roam the house, because they thought they belonged outside,” the Long Island, New York, native said.

Petit’s love of animals and science ultimately led him on the path to becoming a veterinarian, and he is now several months into his year-long neurology internship at the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Petit’s decision to pursue veterinary medicine was initially met with skepticism from his parents, who had immigrated to the United State from Haiti, where, he said, pets and the veterinary profession are viewed as secondary to human medicine.

“They had a more adverse reaction to me becoming a veterinarian. They were leading me toward becoming a human doctor because of their experiences in the Caribbean with animal care,” he said. “Fortunately, they are fully on board now.”

At WSU, Petit is getting the opportunity to learn alongside a team of experienced and board-certified neurology veterinarians, Drs. Annie Chen-Allen, Yael Merbl, and Vishal Murthy.

“They all come from different backgrounds, so you get multiple perspectives,” he said. “All of them are great and very approachable.”

Petit says neurology is much like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. An animal presents with varying symptoms, and it is his job to put them together to create a picture of possible causes.

He recently assisted on a case in which a lethargic dog was admitted to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. After its care team was unable to identify an underlying cause, the neurology department was consulted, and an MRI was scheduled. The results showed the dog had a large brain mass.

“The fact that it did not display any convincing signs on its neurological examination but yet had such a profound lesion on imaging was pretty remarkable,” he said. “Animals can really mask disease until it is at a late stage.”

Petit began his veterinary medicine studies at St. George University in the West Indies, where he completed three years of non-clinical study before heading closer to home at Cornell University in New York for a year of clinical work to complete his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree.

He hopes to secure a neurology residency at the conclusion of his internship and become board certified in the specialty. Long term, he’s open to working in private practice, although he would like to find a position in an academic setting that would provide him the opportunity to interact with both students and clients.

“Inherently, I enjoy teaching, whether it be students or clients or even my family members,” he said.