Barnyard Adventures, Part 2: Surgery in a Barn

I remember watching several episodes of All Creatures Great and Small where Helen, wife of the 1930s veterinarian James Herriot, assists her husband with surgery. As I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, I sort of fall short in my ability to be quite as confident on a farm as Helen, but I’m not giving up yet. When Dr. B and I drove away from the first farm of the day, we left a healthy new baby and mother behind, and we headed for surgery. Although I didn’t touch the cow at all during the surgery, I like to think that I performed my Helen duties fairly admirably.

The farmer at this second farm actually had two cows for Dr. B to examine. The first cow had scarring of the teat, which means that scar tissue has built up in the cow’s udder and milk can’t get out. To take care of this, the farmer brought the cow in question into the milking area (a sort of raised platform with metal bars to keep the cow in place), and Dr. B stood on the ground at the cow’s side. Dr. B had to cut away the scar tissue, and as he started, it became immediately apparent that this cow did not like it. Dr. B adeptly moved to the side as a hoof came at him. Although he did not end up on his backside the way that James Herriot has on many occasions, the experience made me feel a bit better about the safety of my desk job – no danger of being kicked from behind my computer.

When Dr. B had the teat fixed and the milk flowing again, we moved on to the second cow. This one was out of sorts for some unknown reason, and when Dr. B held his stethoscope to her side and flicked her with his fingers, he could hear a high-pitched ping reverberate on her insides. He had me listen to the sound, and then he told me that the high-pitched ping indicated that the cow’s fourth stomach had filled with gas and twisted. He would need to do surgery to correct the problem.

With the issue diagnosed, Dr. B headed out to his truck to get the proper equipment. To my amazement, he was going to turn this dirty, smelly barn into a somewhat pristine area for surgery. I didn’t quite understand how that might happen, but like any good Helen-in-training, I helped Dr. B carry in his surgical tools and stood a safe distance away, curiously watching as he got to work.


This is Dr. B’s surgery box.

Dr. B got the patient into position and then proceeded to clean her up. Before this trip out to the farms, I didn’t quite appreciate how truly dirty cows can be. They walk around relieving themselves whenever they choose, they have all kinds of funny noises escaping from their backsides, and they tend to be constantly covered in brown mud (at least I think it’s mud). In the midst of all of this dirt, Dr. B was going to cleanly and safely operate on this cow in the middle of a dirty barn.

The cow stood in a little holding pen with very little wiggle room. To combat the grime of the animal, Dr. B thoroughly brushed and shaved the dirty hair on the cow’s side before scrubbing the skin clean where he would make the incision, and then he numbed her side in preparation for the operation. As he waited for the numbing injections to take hold, he put a surgery cloth up to the cow’s side and cut a hole in the cloth where he would focus his work. The cow’s dirty hair still covered every inch of her back, legs, and behind, but the operation site was completely clean and ready for the next step.

With everything in place, Dr. B started the procedure. I’ll spare the gory details, but trust me when I say that cows are full of blood and other things. At one point, Dr. B’s arm was all the way into the cow, reaching for the twisted stomach, and he was carrying on a casual conversation with the farmer about the weather. Did he realize where his arm was? I usually have weather conversations with my co-workers at the water fountain in my office – not over the innards of a cow. This visit definitely helped put into perspective a typical day in the office for me versus a typical day for Dr. B.

At one point, Dr. B pulled the cow’s fourth stomach out of its body for me to see. I looked at the slimy thing in his hand and watched as he moved it into proper position, and when I realized that this situation did not make me feel queasy or grossed out, I decided I had achieved a new milestone in my attempt to channel Helen, stellar veterinary assistant. I observed a surgery in all of its gory details, and I lived to tell the tale.

When Dr. B finished sewing up the cow, he gave her an injection of antibiotics and sent her back out into the barn with the rest of the dirty creatures. Then he cleaned up his equipment, and he and I scrubbed our boots thoroughly before hopping back into the truck. Boots scrubbing is vital for cleanliness between each farm.

This farm was my second of the day, and two seemed like a good number for my first trip out into the field. Dr. B took me home and promised that I could tag along again in the future. If that’s the case, I might just share more of these adventures on this blog. I’m finding the experience incredibly fascinating, and I’m determined to improve on my ability to be a veterinarian’s assistant. I’m also learning a thing or two along the way:

  1. As long as blood and guts are part of surgery and not a part of the calving process, I seem to be fine.
  2. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why Helen and James Herriot worked on the farms dressed in skirts and dress suits, respectively. It’s a dirty place out there.
  3. Cows are dirty, dirty creatures. I have a whole new appreciation for where my milk comes from now. It is definitely important to pasteurize.

I found this picture online. It can’t possible be a real cow. It’s too clean.

One thought on “Barnyard Adventures, Part 2: Surgery in a Barn

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

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