I was a senior on large animal ambulatory rotation for the
Month. It was a nice rotation. We traveled the countryside in a
medically equipped truck treating farm animals, meeting
Interesting people, and experiencing many different situations.
The only problem was you had to be "on call" and along with study time, and classes the rotation was difficult. I would end most days exhausted late at night praying that the phone would not ring.
It was a stormy night, cold, windy and raining hard. A good
night to be home, warm, dry, and protected. I was in bed, nice
and cozy, warmed by the body of my wife sleeping next to me and
thinking how nice it was to be inside.
Nobody in their right mind would be out in a storm like this, especially in the middle of the night. I could relax, there certainly would be no calls tonight. The reasoning was good yet I still laid half awake and half asleep, a mental state I would later learn was normal for a vet "on call."
Ring! Ring! Ring! "It can't be. I don't believe it," I
protested quietly so as not to wake my wife up but loudly enough
for her to hear so I could receive her sympathetic ear. It was a cow
dystocia a breach birth. I would have to go out.
"What's the problem, honey?" My wife asked.
My response surprised me, not the response of a dedicated veterinarian. "Some cow is having trouble birthing," I
complained. "Can you believe it? Besides, what kind of a nut
owner would be out in this storm in the middle of the night
looking at his animals anyway?"
As I grudgingly dressed my wife reminded me of the need I had selfishly forgotten, "Poor cow, I hope the
baby calf is all right," she lamented. I went into the night
challenged by my duty to help.
The night was treacherous, roads flooded and wind howling.
We followed an old country road up to a small farm. The farmer was
waiting, a flashlight in hand and protected with vinyl poncho and
rubber boots; items I was sorely lacking. My baseball cap,
lightweight parka and cowboy boots weren't cutting it.
When we asked where the cow was, we heard those dreaded words: " She's in the back acres."
Great, she couldn't be in the barn on some nice dry hay
bedding like in the movies. No, she had to be out in the field, it
would take an hour just to catch her.
We got our gear together and began the freezing wet
search only to find her down, unable to walk exhausted from hours
of labor. Once down there is no getting a cow up. So there we
were without shelter from the rain and wind, freezing wet, in the
middle of the night, standing knee deep in mud. Not just any mud, this
was manure mud, a blend of months of cow excrement with equal
parts of dirt and water, aged to a ripe sinus-opening aroma.
"It couldn't get any worse than this," I thought.
My instincts of self-preservation took over, I quickly
volunteered to hold the light, a job that kept me from having to
kneel and work in the manure-mud. It was only fitting. After all,
I was a small animal man and the other students were large animal
specialist. They should have the opportunity to get hands on experience.
Besides, I had the lantern.
The clinician palpated the cow and asessed the situation. He could tell the calf was breached with what little he could feel, his arm was too big for the vaginal canal to be thorough.
"We're going to have to try and turn the calf then pull it," he instructed, "But its going to take whoever has the smallest arm."
My heart sank; my classmates were all hay baling country farm kids. My arms didn't stand a chance; they were the smallest. I would have to lie down in the manure-mud and stick my arm up this cow in the middle of the night in a rainstorm. It couldn't get worse than this!
My hesitation was erased as I looked into the large brown
trusting eyes of the cow I whispered the sentiments of my wife,
"Poor cow, I hope the calf is all right."
I lay in the mud and passed my arm up the vaginal canal. The calf was presented backward with the legs locking at the cow's pelvis. I struggled
to rotate the calf into a passable position only to find the
little calf had already died and the remainder of its body was grossly
distorted. Surgery under these circumstances was not possible. With the calf dead our concern had shifted entirely to saving the
The clinician looked at me and explained, "We are going to
have to do a fetotomy."
"What's that?", I asked, not liking the sound of it.
He answered, "You're going to have to cut the calf up so we can remove it without surgery."
Over the next hour, while being rained on, I performed this gruesome, unpleasant procedure laying on that manure-mud, cold and wet in the middle of the night. Now I knew for sure, it doesn'2t get any worse than this.
After cleaning up at the clinic, I returned home tired,
chilled to the bone, with only a couple of hours left before the new day
began. As I crawled into my soft, wonderful bed my wife wrapped
her warmed body up to my cold, tired bones, a pleasure I learned to
look forward to after many nights on call in the years to come.
"How did it go?" she asked.
I explained the events of the night, an evening that was a bitter
sweet experience. I was saddened by the loss of the calf but comforted by the saved life of the cow. I chuckled as I considered the manure-mud, a level of veterinary medicine I thought I would never be in. All because of my
"Honey," I whispered as I began to drift off, "I think I need to start working out again."