Friday, June 1, 2012

Special Delivery


        I am a city slicker, born and bred, and thus I knew when I entered my training to become a veterinarian that I would only be dealing with small animals.  While I enjoy strolling through the cattle barn or horse barn at the state fair, looking at farm animals grazing in the fields or occasionally petting the nose of a carriage horse downtown, the idea that I would give medical attention to large animals is still laughable to me.  It is just not my thing.  Yet when I attended Purdue’s School of Veterinary Medicine back in the 1980’s, the idea was to train a veterinarian to fill any role in the field, and so we were required to take both small animal courses as well as large animal courses.  Likewise, we were required to go through at least one equine medicine block and one food animal medicine block during our senior year rotations.  Thankfully for the students this concept has since changed to allow a student to pick a track of study- large animal, small animal or mixed. 
My junior surgery sheep
            I had struggled through my actual large animal medicine courses, learning the requisite anatomy, diseases and drugs just long enough to pass the tests.  My feeble brain was not strong enough to hold onto that information and also pack in the small animal material, so I had to clean out my mental filing cabinet and make room for what I knew I would later use.  However, despite my struggles and discomfort with those topics, I easily passed my course work and headed into my senior year and its clinical rotations.  Now I would have to actually apply that information in a clinical setting and converse with farmers regarding the husbandry of their animals.  I was scared to death, and purposely arranged my senior year to take those blocks in historically slow times.  I must admit, I was rather successful in my choices and faced little traffic in the large animal wing of the vet school.  There were the usual cases of mastitis or an occasional LDA (left displacement of the abomasum, which is an abnormal displacement of a cow’s stomach) and one memorable cow with an RDA (right displacement of the abomasum) which escaped and went running through the large animal ward with its lead rope hanging from its neck.  As it passed by me, I made a lunge, caught the rope then went “water skiing” along the wet concrete behind it.  At one point, it went to make a quick turn and with the combination of me dragging behind on the rope and the slippery floor, the cow took a tumble, fell, and rolled.  This allowed us to gang up on it and get it under control, but when the senior clinician placed his stethoscope on the cow’s side, thumped it with his finger and listened for the tell tale “ping” he only heard a dull thud.  The stomach had rotated back into position during the fall.  I had (accidently) cured it, with no surgery needed!  So the cow was loaded back up and headed home.  
Me and Rosebud, a miniature horse and one of my few equine patients
            However, I was still required to fulfill certain duties, and one of those was desk duty at night.  We had to sit and take any emergency phone calls which might come in, check on the hospitalized animals and then lock up the clinic for the night.  One Friday evening I was the student assigned to desk duty.  Thankfully, the phones were quiet and my patrols of the various wards revealed no problems.  One of my fellow students had warned me that she had a large Chianina heifer who was waiting to calve any time, and that I should alert her if anything was happening.  All through the evening I checked on the cow, but she just stood there chewing her cud with nothing particularly unusual happening.  Finally, the time came when I could shut off the phone and head home, so I took my final pass through the wards, checking each stall and turning out the lights.  But when I came to the pregnant cow’s stall something was different.  She was standing nervously, shifting her weight from side to side and occasionally letting out a bawl.  I looked carefully and there, protuding from her nether regions, was a glimpse of a pair of small hooves.  It had started!  I called the student on the case and waited while she came to check on her patient.  
A beautiful Chianina bull. ( Photo courtesty of
About the same time my girlfriend, Sara, who was also a student at Purdue, had arrived to pick me up.  I never had a car the entire seven years I was at Purdue, but Sara provided a set of wheels to make my life easier.  Her intention had been to just drive in, pick me up and then head back to the dorm.  She was surprised when I met her at the door and told her to come in because a cow was having a baby and I felt I needed to stay and help.  Sara was quite different from me, preferring to keep animals a little more at a distance, and certainly she did not feel comfortable getting into a stall with a large bovine.  On top of all of that, she had no stomach for blood and bodily fluids, so it looked like it could be an interesting evening for her.
Eventually, the student arrived and examined her cow.  Very little had changed in the intervening time since I had called her.  The cow was becoming more anxious and was still straining; yet the calf had not budged an inch.  We decided we needed to pull the calf, so we each took hold of a leg and when a contraction would hit, we would tug with all our might.  Nothing!  The calf was not moving.  We worked for half an hour trying this and realized we were in over our heads on this one.  So my classmate called in the senior clinician on the case, Dr. Boehm.  
I had first met Dr. Boehm in my junior year, and his gruff, direct, plain-spoken demeanor had intimidated me.  But as I had gotten to know him over that year and through my early struggles with the food animal portion of my senior year, I realized he was really a sweetheart of a guy who just used that stern persona to get a reaction out of students.  
Dr. Boehm soon arrived, looked the situation over and took a shot at pulling the calf himself.  However, his efforts were met with the same success as ours.  He said we would need to get the obstetric chains to make the job a little easier.  Sara was biding her time, standing outside the stall and watching the “show” from a safe distance when the student finally returned with the chains.  Up until that point, Dr. Boehm had not acknowledged my girlfriend, but suddenly he turned to me and said, “Is she watching or helping?”  I chuckled and said she was only watching.  I informed him she was nervous around animals and was not a veterinary student by any means.  He was silent for a second then turned to her and said in his usual abrupt way, “Get in here!”
Sara stood there in shocked silence, the color slowly draining from her face.  I knew she could refuse, but I just looked at her, shrugged my shoulders and smiled.  Afraid to disobey Dr. Boehm, she timidly shuffled into the stall dressed in her nice clothes including white shorts, but wearing the requisite boots.  Now her color was totally gone and was being replaced with a greenish hue.  I had to turn away so she could not see my big grin.  
The heifer was now lying down from exhaustion, and Dr. Boehm directed Sara over to its hindquarters.  His command to her was simple and still echoes in my brain.  “Here, grab this vulva!” was all he said.  Sara’s eyes grew even larger and she turned to me with a pleading look on her face.  I smiled back and nodded to the business end of the cow.  Her job over the next several minutes was to hold open the cow’s vulva, complete with mucus, blood and amniotic fluid, while the doctor worked inside of it to affix the chains to the calf.  She refused to look, but bent down and took hold as she had been told.  At his command, the other student and I pulled hard on the handles and soon a young bull calf was lying in the straw next to his mother.  Dr. Boehm picked up a handful of straw to rub down the calf and stimulate it.  It quickly responded, as did the mother who soon was licking and cleaning the calf on her own.
As soon as the excitement was over, Sara beat a quick retreat.  Dr. Boehm looked around and said, “Where is your girlfriend?”  I told him she had seen enough and had stepped out.  Laughing, I thanked him for a great evening.  I would never have been able to get Sara to do that, and to see her there, grabbing a cow’s privates with that odd look on her face, was worth the extra hour or so I had put in at the clinic that night.  Dr. Boehm knew exactly what I meant and got a mischievous grin on his face, as well.
Sara and I at my graduation from Purdue

For the next few months, Dr. Boehm would stop me in the halls and say, “Fifer, we’ve got a cow in here about to calve.  Where’s that girlfriend of yours?”  I don’t know that I ever got Sara back into the large animal clinic again, but for me that evening remains a highlight of my years at Purdue.  I went on to marry Sara, and she now sits patiently in the evenings and listens to my disgusting animal stories (often over the dinner table.)  But thankfully for her, she no longer has to experience them first hand.  She has also gone on to give birth to two wonderful children, so I think she has a deeper understanding of what that cow went through that night than I will ever have.  Sadly the passing years have claimed Dr. Boehm, as well as many of my other instructors, yet Sara remains by my side to this day. Just like that evening 25 years ago, she is my eternal help mate, and for that I am forever grateful.

1 comment:

  1. I love the way you talk about Sarah and hope she reads the blog.
    Another interesting insight into your life, thank you for sharing it.