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Tuesday, April 20, 2010 11:34 AM


Thanks to our two associates and the miracle of scheduling, I now have Mondays off — at least on paper — at least in theory. More often than not, I’ll have at least one large animal emergency, plus the fielding of countless questions from our receptionists.

A few Mondays ago, though, none of that happened, and by 4 p.m. with chores and everything else complete, I settled in to watch some television and live the good life. But, whatever was on “Oprah” didn’t captivate me and my eyes drifted to the bookcase behind the TV and fell upon the first of a series of the best books ever written about veterinarians and the people they serve, “All Creatures Great and Small.”

I read the first chapter, a story from early in James Herriot’s career about a difficult calving or dystocia. His description of laying in the cold muck, and the pain, numbness, sweat, and feelings of futility that accompany, and finally the exhilaration of the birth itself, made me wonder why I ever became a veterinarian. And, at the same time, made me realize why I did.

I don’t deliver many calves anymore, however. Time and cattle work take their toll on a body. My head doesn’t swivel on my neck as freely as most people’s, my shoulders are a little “tweaky” and my back’s mood changes day to day. I attribute most of this to pulling calves.

Ironically, only two days after I read that story, I received a call from one of my cattle clients, Irvin. He had a first calf heifer that was close to delivering and he was afraid she might be getting into trouble.

Last year, Irvin had another cow in dystocia that I begged off on and I have felt bad ever since. The veterinarian I referred him to then was unable to help with this heifer, so I agreed to give it a try.

The heifer was resting comfortably in the straw when I arrived, as she hadn’t tried very hard to have her calf. Apparently, she was waiting for our help. We coaxed her into a cattle chute, but she balked before completely entering. I manned the head-catch lever while Irvin tried to push her the last couple of feet, all the while complaining of recurring pain in his left shoulder.

Once she was secured, I began my exam. The calf was in the normal head on top of front legs presentation, but it was a big one. The heifer was supposedly bred to a “calving ease” sire, a designation usually meant to produce small, easily delivered calves. In my jaded experience, though, this term usually means a very large calf and a really hard pull. “I’ll get the ‘come-along’.”

With the heifer tied back in her pen and the come-along hooked to a secure post, we commenced with the delivery. I put Irvin in charge of the ratcheting and I directed the birth. With each “clackety-clack,” a little more calf was exposed.

Things progressed rapidly until we got to the hips. This “hip-lock” is a common occurrence but a twist of the shoulders was all it took to turn the calf’s pelvis just enough. One final “clackety-clack” and the calf plopped on the straw. That’s when the first miracle occurred. The “plop,” much like slapping a newborn baby, was followed by the first sign of life — a gasp for air and then the big bug eyes opened wide. I thought we had a dead calf. Boy, was I wrong. But it was a good wrong.

I left the barn to get some medication from my truck and when I returned, Irvin was missing. Sure, there were various gates and the chute blocking my view of the pen but Irvin is a good-sized guy, not easily lost. As I made my way around the chute, however, I found him.

Irvin was flat on his back in the straw, feet close together and his arms flung to the sides. I don’t mean to make too much about the symbolism of the season, but that’s kind of what he looked like. And, with his overalls and heavy sweatshirt, there was no detectable breathing — or life. “Oh, my God, Irvin’s dead!”

I must have said something else, too, and I have a feeling it was hugely unprintable, because he responded fairly quickly. “I’m alright. I’m just stretching out my back.”

Although I was certainly happy to be wrong again, Irvin’s event admittedly left me pretty shaken. But, if one of our hearts had to skip a beat, I’m glad it was mine.

The birth of the calf and Irvin’s resurrection were about all the exhilaration this old vet could tolerate in one day.

I hope your Easter was as happy as Irvin’s and mine.


Last Updated on Tuesday, November 06, 2012 3:10 PM

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