A Cold, Dark Emergency
I wasn’t always a homeopathic vet, of course. No one graduates that way. The practice of homeopathy came after years of conventional practice followed by a couple years of sticking fine needles into animals and watching the magic they could create. Those little white pills held even more magic, at least in my hands, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Doctoring the Big Girls
I started with a solid seven years in mixed practice in the idyllic farm land of Wisconsin, a couple hours North of where I’d been raised as a city kid. I was the fourth vet to join the group who saw cows, horses and pets of every stripe, but we practiced medicine in the heart of Dodge County, one of the most concentrated dairy farming areas in the entire country. So, cows were our bread and butter. And we saw lots of them.
Dairy practice was amazing in itself. I came to it afraid that these farmers, who had grown up around cows for generations, would know far more than I, a mere new graduate, full of book learning and very little practical experience. To say that I enjoyed practice in those heady first weeks and months is a gross understatement. I came home positively bursting with enthusiasm at what I’d seen and done each day, not quite believing that I was actually being paid to do something so enjoyable. The cows were huge, well over a thousand pounds each, and yet were mostly tractable when handled properly. The pills we used were massive, and had to be given by bodily wrestling the cow’s forty pound head and slipping a metal “balling gun” in her mouth that would fire the bolus down her throat. We did cowside surgeries in the barn for “twisted stomachs” and C-sections. We delivered calves, treated pneumonia, and opened teats that had been tromped on and injured by hooves that could easily break a man’s ribs with a well-placed kick.
The farmers not only valued my expertise as a new veterinarian, but they made me feel welcome, and were the kind of folks who’d help in any way they could. For example, a pair of brothers who ran the farm their father passed on to them, brought me a load of firewood when I was heading into my first winter. Another young farmer offered me his pickup truck to use for “making wood,” the weekend ritual of cutting dead trees and splitting logs for the wood stove that kept my wife and I warm in our little cottage. Another family lent me their flour mill so that I could grind wheat berries to make the freshest bread imaginable. Others let me buy fresh milk and homemade butter, the likes of which were so superior to anything I’d ever tasted that I was in gustatory heaven. I could just leave my money on the bulk tank, the huge stainless steel reservoir that lived in the milk house and stored several “milkings” until the milk truck came to haul it to the dairy.
Neither Snow, Nor Rain, Nor Dark of Night
One particularly eventful Winter night made me realize just how much I’d signed on for when I decided to become a veterinarian. It was my turn to cover the emergency calls, and there was a blizzard happening, the likes of which we hadn’t seen to date that year. Norbert, a farmer ten miles North of me, called about 8:00. “I’ve got a cow down with milk fever, Doc. Can you make it out here?” It was a fair question, as plows hadn’t made it to my neighborhood, and the wind was such that their work would be soon undone by blowing drifts anyway. “I’ll see what I can do, Norbert,” I answered, and hanging up, I peered out the window into the dark evening, hearing the snow scouring the glass. I had a small Toyota pickup truck, but it had good snow tires and a heavy portable clinic in the bed that kept me weighted down well on slippery roads. It waited up the hill on the street that night, a long extension cord powering the clinic’s heater to keep my drugs from freezing. The weather made it too uncertain to park in my usual spot in the garage below the house. The driveway was just too steep to trust getting out in such conditions. And I was on call.
So, wearing all the clothes that were practical to put on and still be able to move and be a doctor, I trudged through the storm to the truck. It started reassuringly, but creaked on moving initially due to temperatures hovering in the teens in a strong East wind. I slowly pulled out of my little neighborhood, testing the brakes now and then to see how slippery this particular snow would be. Luckily, it was dry snow, and I could get a pretty good bite in it with the deep snow tire treads. “Car nine, 10-4,” I said into the two-way radio, though I really doubted anyone was listening to my announcement that I was out on the road at this hour. With my headlights hitting the swirling snow ahead, I plunged into the black night, the rest of humanity and animal kind likely indoors and safe. But I was a vet. My patient needed me. She had no idea I even existed, but I was on my way to save her life.
White Knuckle Driving
It was not my usual relaxed driving that took me through the farm roads this night to my patient. I had to constantly check my course, test my brakes, and carefully watch the snow covered road that was unmarked by prior vehicles before me. The dry snow was being whipped by a stout wind, so there were small drifts that had to be bested along the way, but the little truck seemed to be sure-footed and heavy enough to smash through them as long as I had good momentum. After a good forty minutes of travel on a course that would usually have taken twenty, I arrived at the familiar farm, and saw the welcoming light streaming from the milk house. Grabbing my stainless steel bucket, metal strip cup with a squirt of disinfectant, a couple of bottles of calcium solution, and my doctor’s box, I set off to find my suffering patient.
Once inside, I could breath easier, open my heavy parka, pull my hood down, and fill my bucket with the good clean hot water that was there in abundance at the deep sink near the massive bulk tank. Norbert came from the house, and ushered me to the box stall where the cow laid, her calf still slightly wet but lively near her head. She was lying on her side, unable to rise, but in a nice bedded stall full of good clean oat straw.
When Cows Crash
When a cow calves, or gives birth, she’s suddenly hormonally driven to make a huge volume of milk all at once, to feed her newborn. With man’s intervention, modern cows have been asked via selective breeding over several generations to produce lots of milk, enough to feed a small herd of calves, and thereby feed humanity along with her offspring. This cow was no exception: she had an udder the size of a bushel basket. This sudden surge of milk being produced put her blood into a negative calcium balance, and calcium is needed for muscles and nerves do their work. She lay in a state of flaccid paralysis. Milk fever is quite the misnomer, for as someone once aptly stated, “No milk, and no fever.” True enough, the majority of the milk hadn’t yet arrived, just the syrupy colostrum that was so valuable to the newborn for immunity from the world of germs she’d just been born into. And not only not a fever, but rather a subnormal temperature was the usual presentation at this point.
I checked her udder to be sure she didn’t have mastitis, and all looked normal, each quarter full of golden thick colostrum. Feeling her cold ears, and seeing the dull look in her eyes, barely able to raise her head, told me the familiar story of her disease, one in which I would be able to once again play the hero. Untreated milk fever cows can die. I opened my hard black plastic doctor’s bag on the straw bedding, pulled out my long rubber IV set and a 4” stainless steel needle with a ¼” bore, and pulled one of the liter bottles of calcium from the warm water in my pail. After securing her head with a rope halter to a nearby pen post, I slapped the needle through her thick hide squarely into her jugular vein, and saw by the dark, flowing blood that I had hit my mark. I threaded the long needle down the vein in the direction of her heart, rinsed my bloody fingers, connected the IV set, and raised my bottle to chest height to allow the warm, reviving calcium gluconate solution to begin its descent into her weak body.
The trick with treating a milk fever cow is to not give her too much calcium too fast, or it could stop her heart, the absolute last thing a vet or expectant farmer would want to occur. So, I metered her flow, watching her breathing and the level in my bottle, pinching the rubber IV tubing as needed to slow the draining fluid. After the first liter, she looked a bit more alert as expected, and I swapped bottles to begin the second one, which flowed uneventfully in as well. The whole treatment took about thirty minutes to complete, after which I untied her, and began washing my equipment in the warm disinfectant water in my pail. Norbert and I discussed the raging storm as we watched her hopefully. Once everything was back in my box, she sat up on her chest, stronger already. I took my things outside her stall and came back to add the final touch to the treatment, a couple of knees thudding into her 1400 pound frame, just South of her spine on her ribs. Whomp! She startled a bit, leaned forward on her chest, her rear legs digging mightily into the stall’s bedding, and she heaved her rear quarters skyward, following with an easy, though shaky rise of her front end. “That’s a girl, Bossy,” I said, patting her calmingly, “you’ve done it.” Her calf eyed her udder hungrily and came wobbling over to suckle, while she got her bearings in a world right side up once more, and started licking his backside. The miracle of calcium well delivered had worked once again. She’d likely keep up with her calcium needs on her own now, and start eating good alfalfa-based feed with added minerals to keep her supplied for the work of milk production ahead.
I bundled up and bid the farmer goodnight, heading off into the busy blizzard outside. My chopper leather mittens and wool liners allowed just enough manual dexterity to open the truck’s clinic, get my things back inside, wash my boots in the last of the disinfectant solution, leaving a brown stain in the snow, and head for the cab for the return trip home. The truck started, the heater fan was turned off to wait for the engine to warm, and, with the snow swirling around me there in the tiny world of truck cab in the farm yard, I set off into the bigger, pitch black world awaiting me on the road ahead.
The Long and Blinding Road
Close to an hour had passed since I had been out here, and the snow had kept coming unrelentingly, and if anything, the wind had picked up a bit. Still no signs of other vehicles on the road, but I could see that, at least on the main road, the plows had made a pass, which would help part of the trip be a bit easier. I drove on into the night, with a smaller reach of how far my headlights threw their beams, lost in the ofttimes horizontal snow. High beams were useless, just reflecting all the more in the snow, so it was low beams and slow, steady driving until I covered the distance back to the farm road that would bring me to my neighborhood and cottage. Ah, to be back by the fire, home for the night. I could almost feel the warmth of the bed I was so looking forward to crawling into.
The farm road that made the final leg of the journey, had, as expected, not been visited by the plows yet. They were limited in numbers, and were undoubtedly not going to get to these small roads until morning. What that meant was that I had to look for other cues as to where the road was, as the blinding white stuff had long ago obliterated the blacktop, and the terrain was one of valleys and drifts, some as high as my hood by now. I could make out the ditch in most places, by the farmers’ fences on their side of it, and thought how very unpleasant it would be to slide off into one at this hour. My hands gripped the steering wheel more tightly as I strained to see the road ahead. Some drifts were bested just barely, their drag on the underside of the truck almost stopping me, the snow exploding on all sides as I hit them hard. I’d have to gear down quickly and let out the clutch carefully, so as not to spin my wheels and lose forward motion. Doing any of this too fast risked losing control, and either going into a spin or sliding sidelong towards the ever looming ditch. Luckily, having learned to drive in Wisconsin, I, like all boys, took every opportunity to practice “doing doughnuts” in fresh snow in any parking lot that hadn’t been plowed yet. One learns immensely practical car handling skills in having this sort of fun, and though we never considered it as useful at the time, too busy hooting with laughter and looking for the next open spot to throw the car into a spin, all of that innate skill became ingrained and could be called upon in times like this.
You Got One Shot. Don’t Blow It.
After the last few drifts were bucked with diminishing success, I felt I had to be extra careful now on this last leg before the turn home. I knew the area ahead would likely be deeply drifted over, due to its openness to the East wind and a whole hay field worth of snow upwind that could be picked up and hurled across my path. As I slowly approached, straining my eyes to see into the white swirl ahead, I knew I would be on it before I had enough time to judge it correctly and have enough speed in the proper gear to get through successfully. So, all alone in the blinding snow, I stopped the truck in the middle of the road, pulled up my parka’s snorkel hood, braced against the wind, and trudged out to survey the monster ahead. It was eerily threatening outside the truck’s cab, snow falling, blowing into me and covering everything with that softness that easily obscured the landscape. And, sure enough, there it was, dead ahead, a whopper snow drift, over my hood in height by a good foot and wider than my truck by a length. Mind you, I was looking through a small opening of my fur lined hood, in the fading light of my headlights behind me, but I could make out enough form ahead in the darkness to know I’d have one shot only at this one. Too slow and not enough torque to the wheels and I’d be stuck in the middle of it, having to summon a poor farmer to come out into the cold blizzard with his tractor and chains to get me out. Too fast without proper control and direction, and I’d wind up sliding into the ditch, with an even worse outcome. No, it had to be just right. Having ascertained the depth and height of the obstructing drift lying centered across my path, I trudged back into the welcoming warmth of the cab, my glasses immediately steaming up and obliterating all hope of vision. “Hmmm, must be really cold to do that so easily. Brrrr. Can’t make a mistake on this one, no sir. Has to be hit a bit left of center.” Thoughts like these and “Just make it home, just make this work,” and pictures of a truck paralyzed in a snowy ditch were fully occupying my mind now.
“OK, this is it.” I backed up a bit, blindly, but trusting the cues I could make out ahead that I was still in the center of the narrow two lane farm road. I wanted a fresh run at this, and a good start in fresh snow to get maximum traction. No worry there. My tracks had filled in in the time it had taken to survey the scene ahead of me. I put it in first gear and started off, straight for the behemoth. Second gear now, momentum gaining, “Better stay in second, more power, less chance to spin and lose it, veer a bit left now, give ‘er more gas.” Heart pounding, I came up to the most speed I could trust to stay in control and yet have enough force to break on through. BLAM!! Snow flying everywhere, driving by gut feel alone, blinded by the snow explosion, a bit of slipping but the forward motion was still there, how much longer can this last? Long enough to get to the other side? YES! I was slowed but not stopped, and now I could see ahead of me to a more level stretch of snow, and I could keep going right into it, carrying on, ever forward, engine humming, wipers frantically beating to keep the windshield clear, but I was moving, and moving steadily, and home was just up around the next bend. Pulse slowing a bit, I felt like I could handle most anything now, and it turned out that the rest of the way home was relatively uneventful, albeit needing careful nurturing to get the truck safely there.
Home! Cow saved, body and truck intact. Plug this baby in, I’m crawling into bed!
[Do you like real stories from vet practice like this? Let me know in the comments. I’ll be happy to write more if they are well received.]