Barnyard Adventures, Part 1: My Introduction to Life as a Vet in Training

If God had wanted me to be a surgeon, God would not have given me shaky hands. This was just one of my many thoughts as I watched Dr. B, the veterinarian I was shadowing, cut into the side of a live cow to fix an LDA (otherwise known as a twisted stomach). You see, I tend to shake easily. My doctor says I have high metabolism, and of course, I drink a lot of caffeine (I love my tea!). So I was rather impressed when Dr. B adeptly cut into the side of a female cow, hands steady and sure, and proceeded to reach around in there to untwist the stomach and stitch it into place so it would never twist again.

It was somewhere between the first incision and the actual moment when Dr. B reached into the cow – right up to his shoulder – that I decided I’d made a wise career choice. Veterinary medicine is not the field for me. But when you happen to know a large animal veterinarian, and you also happen to be a big fan of the BBC show All Creatures Great and Small (and the books that inspired the show), you find yourself making funny requests – like asking to tag along when the vet makes his rounds to the farms.

Lucky for me, Dr. B agreed to bring me along, and I prepared to channel the character of Helen, wife of veterinarian James Herriot and my favorite character in All Creatures Great and Small. I figured I could ride with Dr. B, lend a hand here and there, and learn a bit along the way. After all, if Helen could do farm work in a skirt in the 1930s, how hard could it be?

Our day of farm calls did not actually start with the twisted stomach stop. We worked our way up to that one. The first call came from a farmer who needed help delivering a calf. As Dr. B explained to me, cows can deliver their calves on their own about 90% of the time. About 5% of the time, the farmer needs to provide some assistance, and when it comes to that other 5%, the vet is called out because the birth is actually endangering the life of the mother. Usually, by this point, the baby has little chance of survival. Despite this prognosis, I had high hopes for both mother and child as we pulled up to the farm that day. I also had high hopes that the blood and guts would not be too overwhelming for me (I tend to be a bit squeamish).

Usually, when James Herriot heads out on his farm calls, he goes dressed in a suit and tie, carrying a little medical bag. My attire for the farms was a little different, and Dr. B’s medical bag was slightly larger than Mr. Herriot’s.

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Properly dressed and prepared for veterinary work in the year 2014, I felt the anticipation mounting as Dr. B parked the truck beside the cow area, and we hopped out into the stinky air. Keep in mind that I’m a city girl who was raised in a small town. I was only half expecting the whiff of manure and livestock that bombarded my nostrils. After all, you can’t smell anything when you are watching James Herriot perform his duties on TV. Real farms are much more pungent.

With all the cows surrounding us in the pen beside the truck, I started to wonder how Dr. B would figure out which cow he should work on. Then we walked into the barn. The only cow in there had four hooves on the ground and a fifth one sticking out of its behind. Something told me that this cow was the patient.

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Notice the chains in the center (mixed in among all the other intimidating tools).

Dr. B got to work getting warm water and soap and setting about with his chains. Yep, chains. That’s how he was going to pull the baby out. On the BBC show, the veterinarians of the 1930s use twine to tie to the baby so that they can maneuver it out of the mother. As Dr. B explained to me, chains are much more sanitary today. You can clean them thoroughly between uses whereas germs build up within the strands of the twine.

Both twine and chains sounded rather frightening to me, but thankfully, I didn’t have to do anything with either one. For that day, I was the veterinarian’s assistant, and my job was to hold the mother’s tail up so that it wouldn’t hit Dr. B as he worked. If possible, I was also to keep from fainting while I held that tail in the proper position.

Things started okay. The farmer came out to help, and Dr. B gave the cow an epidural. Then the real business got underway. Lots of pushing and pulling took place at one end of the cow, while I focused my eyes intently on the other end. Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on the mother doing what mother’s do best during the labor process – crying out uncontrollably and twisting her body all over the place. As you may recall from my previous entry on the subject, I have a terrible fear of pregnant women – the exploding part that comes at the end of the pregnancy to be specific. And here I was in a stinky barnyard, witnessing as this poor cow tried to explode this baby out. I couldn’t take it. My strong feelings of empathy for this dairy cow were taking over, and when the right moment presented itself, I told Dr. B I needed to get some air.

The farmer grabbed the tail from me, and with my own tail between my legs, I sheepishly left the barn, walked a sufficient distance away so as not to be overwhelmed by the farm smell, and stood there wondering what to do with myself. Luckily, the farmer’s wife saw me standing alone, and I got to experience another classic barnyard moment straight out of the pages of All Creatures Great and Small. The farmer’s wife invited me in for breakfast.

One of my favorite reoccurring themes on the show happens to be the food and drink invitations that Mr. Herriot receives from the farmers and their wives after his farm work is complete. I’m happy to say that this aspect of farm hospitality hasn’t changed much since the 1930s. As Dr. B finished up his work, I enjoyed eggs, toast, and yummy tea with the farmer’s wife.

I was really starting to enjoy my day on the farm – from the safety of the farmer’s kitchen – when Dr. B walked in. The hard work out in the barn was done, and miraculously, both mother and baby had lived. Since the baby survived, I considered myself a good luck charm. That’s about the only credit I could possibly take at that first farm. I was rather useless, but I like to comfort myself with the following facts: I did not faint, I did not throw up, and I did not get in the way. I also like to think that I redeemed myself at the next farm when Dr. B operated on the cow with the LDA that I mentioned in the beginning, but I’ll get into that story tomorrow.

If you are not familiar with James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, I highly recommend that you check it out. It might give you some idea of what I experienced that Saturday morning on the dairy farms. And if you do know the James Herriot stories, you’ve probably already figured out that I’m no Helen. I tried my best that morning, but as I discovered, I don’t have quite as much grit as Helen does. And at least at that first farm, I did a far better job cheering Dr. B on from the safety of the kitchen than from the side of a cow. So, instead of chastising myself, I’m dubbing myself a “Helen-in-training.” With a little more practice, I can be a good sidekick to the veterinarian – but I might need nose plugs next time.

2 thoughts on “Barnyard Adventures, Part 1: My Introduction to Life as a Vet in Training

  1. Pingback: Barnyard Adventures, Part 2: Surgery in a Barn | shadesofindistinct

  2. Pingback: Procrastinating with Veterinary Work | Megan Mallory Martin

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