Timeless Spirit Logo     TALES OF A COUNTRY VET

A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. January Theme: "Peace"
Volume 2 Issue 2 ISSN# 1708-3265

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Tales of a Country Vet
with Dr. Bruce Burton DVM

It was on a Saturday night, middle of September. I had only been practicing for about four months. I remember sitting home, all snug and cozy, thanking providence that I was inside, warm and dry. I was covering for a neighbouring large animal practice, but was confident that I wouldn't be called out, since it was close to 11:00 PM.

In the evening, most farmers check their animals around nine o'clock and will usually phone before eleven, to avoid the increased callout fee for late night work. Outside, the rain was coming down in sheets. The wind howled and drove the rain against the windows in ever-worsening bursts. Each time the rain lashed against the house the lights flickered, threatening to end their useful service.

The day had been a full one and I had just poured myself a respectable nightcap and snuggled into the chesterfield with a Wilbur Smith epic, pleased that my work had been completed. As I lifted the snifter to my lips, the pager went off. I think I said "Oh Heck!" or something to that effect. I glanced outside at the raging storm, put down my scotch and reluctantly dragged myself to the phone. I called the answering service. The twangy voice at the opposite end of the phone gave me my instructions between bouts of static. "Please…(hccccccck)… phone Mr. (hcccck) Skye. He says he has a……(hccccck) …… cow that got into some grain." …'Great!' I thought. …'Just what I needed!'

So, with somewhat less than enthusiastic resolve, I called Mr. Skye. The phone rang and rang. No answer. After the fifth ring I was happily moving to hang up when, to my dismay, the receiver was picked up. I waited a second, and then there was a loud metallic bang. This was quickly followed by a long grating sound, which ended with a loud clang. I guessed that whoever had answered, had dropped the phone into a metal wastebasket or was dragging it along a concrete aisle-way or something.

I waited patiently. "Hello? Mr. Skye? Hello?" "……… Is anybody there? … Hello?" The line was dead. My spirits rose once more. But, as I was about to put the phone down for the second time, I heard from some deep, distant recesses in the receiver "Ish thish the vet?" Dejected, I muttered, "Yes. Do you have a problem?" ………Silence greeted my question. "Hello? Are you there, Mr. Skye?" "Are you tha vet, then?" "YES!" I hollered, "DO…YOU…HAVE&#133A…PROBLEM?" "My best cow jusht… (hic) … ate a barrel of grain,…… you've gotta come right (hic)away! "m head'in down to see her now… "

Before I could answer I heard the unmistakable …'click' as Mr. Skye hung up the phone. Since I was still an eager new graduate, and hadn't been steeled by years of experience, I decided to pursue the matter. Since Mr. Skye hadn't given me his address. I phoned him again to get his address. However, my repeated calls went unanswered. So, I decided to look him up in the phone book and cross-reference it to the phone number the answering service gave me. At that time I lived in the semi-rural city of Abbotsford. Mr. Skye lived somewhere north of Aldergrove, fifteen or so miles away. Once it was clear I was committed to going out on this call, my desire to stay home waned and my interest in the assignment grew.

At this early stage of my career, I still had the sense of discovery each new case offered. So while I didn't fancy heading out into the torrential downpour, I did relish the thought of trying my hand at saving this fellow's cow. From our brief introductory conversation, I sensed that he earned his living from raising cattle and that he cared very deeply for his animals. Otherwise he wouldn't have called. He had probably had a beer or two and then discovered the state of affairs as he so succinctly described them to me. I wouldn't let him down.

A feeling of importance welled within. This poor farmer was relying on me to save his best cow, which was, quite possibly, at the point of death. And he was placing all his faith in me. It was now up to me to deliver. I couldn't let him down! I headed out the door with an air of confident serenity, assured that my training would enable me to make a difference to this one lone farmer. I was already anticipating a job well done.

In my mind, I could see the stooped old man handing me some home-made preserves once we had saved the cow, or maybe he would offer a steaming hot toddy and we would chew the fat while we sat in the hay-strewn barn, braced against the elements, like old army comrades. Being a vet was truly going to be all that I had imagined. …'What a glorious life I was beginning!' I thought to myself as I climbed into the van and drove off.

After about half an hour I finally found Mr. Skye's farm. The wind had finally knocked out the power. The entire street was ink black. I inched along the road, scrutinizing each mailbox for the Skye residence. I had to use the headlights of the van to try to read the numbers. Finally, after examining half a dozen mailboxes, I was rewarded. I had just passed his property. So I backed up and turned into the long, gravel driveway. The only sign of life was the bobbing and weaving of a barely discernible flashlight about one hundred feet from the road.

I pulled up. "Mr. Skye? I'm the vet, come to look at your cow." "Huh?" He seemed startled at first. "I said … I'm the vet!" Then, as he tried to focus his rheumy eyes on me, he slurred. "Oh! good, good, I needed a vet anyhow. My cow … my good cow … got into (hic) some grain and I think shesh shick (hic). Good thing you're here."

One problem presented itself immediately. I couldn't see any cows. Worse still, I couldn't see any barn. "Mr. Skye, where is the cow?" "Oh, sheesh out back…… Follow me!" With that he spun around, wobbled to a more upright posture, and headed haltingly back and forth down the hill towards the wall of darkness just beyond the limits of his feeble flashlight. "Cum'on!" He hollered with a wave of his arm and a glance over his shoulder when I didn't move fast enough for him. "Cum'on! … shessh (hic) out back … here … in tha (hic) … pashtur……" .

Fortunately, the rain had stopped. However, all I could see of this 'farm' was the house, which we just left, and what appeared to be a forest, into which I was being led. He reminded me more of the steely in a pinball machine than a farmer. He bounced from tree-trunk to tree-trunk as we moved through his densely forested back yard. On we trudged, he leading, and I following. At the bottom of the hill we encountered what would have normally been a small creek, but swollen with runoff from the storm, could have been described more accurately as a small river.

A single alder log, about one foot in diameter, spanned the narrowest portion and we had to balance carefully to get across it. It was difficult for me to cross, stone sober, so I don't know how Mr. Skye managed it in his obviously inebriated condition, but he did. On the opposite side we started to climb a slight hill. The vegetation was dense and saturated with water. We both got soaked as we slashed our way through the stinging nettles, blackberries and alder saplings.

On we went. It seemed like forever. I couldn't see how this guy could ever find his cow, (which, by this time, had become a prize-winning, registered Black Angus), and I was having serious doubts whether we would ever find our way back out. The longer we walked, the more hopeless I hoped her condition was. Because, with grain overload, the best option is often to slaughter the animal, and salvage the meat while it is still in good shape. With each step away from the house, the thought of doing a surgery at this time of night, and in these conditions, was rapidly losing its appeal.

Unbelievably, after much thrashing about in the underbrush, we found her. Tied by the neck to a small maple tree, she had made a clearing for herself around the base of the tree. Oh well! At least now we could put a halter on her and lead her back to whatever he had for a shelter and treat her there. Somewhere warm and dry!

"When did she get into the grain?" I asked politely.
"Oh, mushta been some time ago."
"I need to know how many days has she been sick?"
"Probably a couple, maybe … (hic)… a week, can't say for sure. But ya gotta… (hic)… sav'er, Doc, sheesh my besht cow."

By this time I still hadn't seen any other animals against which his assessment could be measured. Apparently, somewhere hidden amongst the trees, he had one other heifer and two calves.

As we approached the cow, Mr. Skye collapsed in a heap, wailing incessantly that he should have called earlier, and that he was going to lose his favourite cow. His daughter and teenaged son, who had followed us in silence, tried to console their father. I walked up to examine her. I thought this prudent, just to confirm his diagnosis and to see if I could find any reason to recommend slaughter. I checked her over.

Yep, she had all the signs of a severe engorgement of grain. And the history fit, except for the time-line. He told me he had left the door to the garage, where he kept his grain, unlocked and Gloria, his cow, had somehow got in. The forty-five gallon drum where he kept the grain was full before she got in and was about half empty when he chased her out. I was almost certain of the diagnosis. But, just to be sure, I did a rectal palpation.

In classic cases of grain overload you can palpate the grain in the rumen by doing a rectal palpation. I had the foresight to have brought a rectal-palpation-glove with me. I could feel the outline of the rumen, bulging in her abdomen. As I gently ran my fingers over the rumen the surface resembled the outside of a bag filled to bursting with grain. I could almost hear it rustling around through the tips of my fingers, as I ran my hand back and forth over the bulging mass. Great! She would need surgery and I knew that he wouldn't go for that. No way! First of all the cost would have been about three hundred dollars at this time of night, and the prognosis would have been grave, considering how long she must have been sick.

I broke the news to him with all the gravity I could muster. "Mr. Skye, you'll have to send her to slaughter. Otherwise, she's going to die. The only other option is to do surgery and I'm sure you'll agree that that would cost too much." I could feel my bed beckoning. I began packing my stuff, figuring my work here was obviously concluded. I prepared for the return hike.

Mr. Skye was silent. I didn't look at him but I could feel him mulling the dilemma over in his mind. I began to worry that he might actually be considering surgery. As the time dragged on, I steeled myself for what was coming. The longer he deliberated, the worse my chances became.

Finally, he leaned back and bellowed with great effort. "I'll want you to do the surgery, Doc. … can't fford t'lose m'besht cow." My heart sunk. He had called my bluff. My only chance now was to explain to him how remote the chances of success were and how costly it was going to be, especially if Gloria died anyhow. Then he would receive no compensation, and would still be liable for the bill.

But his mind was made up and no amount of reasoned discussion was going to sway him. Then I thought that I would just send him back to the house and tell him we did the surgery but that she died anyhow. But his kids probably would have ratted me out, even though they didn't want to be there any more than I did. Then I considered the legal aspects. Clearly, in this state, he couldn't possibly give informed consent. There's no way I could perform this surgery if he didn't provide me with the absolutely necessary informed consent. But, it was hopeless. His resolve was unshakable.

"OK, …… let's get her back to the house and ……we can't do the surgery here in the bush……" I began to mutter dejectedly. And at that precise moment Gloria staggered at the end of the rope and went down. At first I was overjoyed, thinking she had succumbed to a heart attack. Then she moaned a few times and tucked her legs underneath her. Once she was down, we couldn't get her up. I tried everything from shouting to an electric cattle prod. She wouldn't budge. Great! Well now what?

I gritted my teeth, teetering on the verge of packing up and going home. But, my damnable sense of duty took over. If we couldn't get her back to the house, it would be impossible to ship her. So the only reasonable options now were either to euthanize her or to perform the surgery. I sent the crew back to the car to get everything we would need. It was going to be surgery.

Down the hill. Across the increasingly slippery log, up the hill to the house. We packed up all the surgery gear I would need. Mr. Skye went back into the house. He professed to be looking for some batteries to recharge his feeble flashlight, which had finally died, but I could hear the tinkle of bottles, Rye bottles, so I guessed he was recharging his own batteries as well.

After about fifteen minutes, he returned with an ancient Coleman camp light, powered by white gas. All of us were loaded to the gunnels with everything we needed. We resembled a troop of army ants ferrying equipment back and forth along a trail, in near total darkness. Contact was maintained by frequent yelling, interspersed with profanities as someone tripped over a hidden branch or got hung up in a mass of blackberry vines. But no one fell in the creek. As slippery and weather-beaten as that alder log was, it bore us all safely across the raging torrent of water. Finally, we were set.

Mr. Skye held up the hissing lantern, which provided a surprising amount of light. Just as I was putting in the local anaesthetic, Gloria jumped up and tried to run back to the house. She got about eight feet, before the rope snapped taught. Her rear end whipped around and down she went down again. Then she got up and tried the same manoeuvre, with the same result. I suggested that we cut the rope and maybe she would head back to the house, but the halter and rope were worth almost five dollars and Mr. Skye, a true Scot, put an end to that speculation.

Finally she tried to get away by running around the tree. Lucky for us the tree held and she essentially choked herself into a stable standing position. I then tied her tail to a tree behind and we were ready once more. What I had to do was make an incision. Through the skin in her flank, through the several inches of muscle and finally right into her rumen, the largest of the four stomachs of a cow. I had to take meticulous care not to contaminate the abdomen; otherwise Gloria would surely have died of peritonitis. Once into the rumen, I needed to empty all of the grain, one handful at a time. This was the plan.

After shaving and surgically cleaning the left side of her abdomen, I made my incision. Mr. Skye continued holding the Coleman lamp over my head. It did shed some light on the site. But mostly it attracted every flying night insect from a radius of about one hundred feet.

First, I cut through the skin, then the three layers of muscle. Now I was down to the peritoneum. I carefully held the thin but tough white tissue with thumb forceps and gently nicked it with the scalpel. As I did so there was a tremendous inrush of air. I continued the incision, exposing the entire abdominal cavity. The wall of the rumen was now staring me in the face.

The rumen of an adult cow is a good two and a half feet long in every direction and is filled to the brim with a seething mass of fermenting grass and grain. It weighs in the neighbourhood of one hundred and fifty pounds. I did my best to pull it up to the incision. I wanted to stitch the edges of the incision to the wall of the rumen. By doing so I could cut through into the rumen and avoid contaminating the abdomen. I was able to complete the procedure and the rumen was tightly secured to the edges of the incision.

This being my first solo rumenotomy, I had to be sure. Before I made my cut, I re-palpated the surface. Normally, the rumen contains a tremendous amount of bacteria-laden soupy material under some pressure. I had to anticipate an explosion of foul-smelling material. So, I stood beside, rather than in front of, the proposed incision line.

I was poised, scalpel in hand. I drew down. As I cut through, I was relieved, and more than a little surprised, to note that the contents were pretty standard. With all that grain in there, I expected at least some outburst of fetid, partially-digested, organic matter. But it was not to be. The contents looked reasonably normal.

But I knew the grain was in there and I had to get it out, all of it, if Gloria was to have half a chance. I reached in to start scooping out the masses of wet grain. …'Hmmm. No grain on top.' I thought to myself. …Oh well, it's usually churned around and is probably in the bottom or in the middle. I kept scooping, and still found no grain. None. Not even a single kernel. This was rapidly deteriorating into a major embarrassment. What if I cut into a healthy animal? What if she had some other condition, and now she's going to die because of the surgery? I plodded on in professional silence, determined to find grain!

I was about half way through my excavation, my arm was fully extended into the rumen, and was just about to admit apologetically to Mr. Skye that maybe we were wrong and maybe Gloria didn't get into the grain after all, when, just like in the movies, my fingers snagged on something. I didn't know what it was, but it felt like a coiled up plastic bag. I pulled on it. I kept pulling. It was just like when a clown starts pulling flags out of his sleeve, they just keep coming and coming. That's what happened here. The plastic just kept coming and coming. When we got it out it appeared to be a large green garbage bag tightly twisted into a single, long, rope.

"Here's your problem" I pronounced confidently, without missing a beat. "She must have swallowed this and it has been stuck in her intestines the whole time. She didn't have a grain overload, she had a complete intestinal obstruction. She should be fine now, if we can just make sure she doesn't tear the suture line or get infected."

With a great sigh of relief, I turned to get cleaned up and began to inject her with some antibiotics, just to be safe. "Bye Gaw!" he said, "So that's where that bag got to. That was the bag I used to cover the grain." I could see he was in deep thought, likely sobering up and getting ready to thank me for saving his best cow, so I just kept busy cleaning up and getting ready to go. "Hey doc,… Du' ya think I'll have ta buy another one,…these bags is expensive y'kno,……or is thish one shtill okay to use?" he asked solemnly.

I left the Skye family to get everything else sorted out. It was, by then, three AM. And I wanted to get some sleep. A thin edging of moonlight outlined the now-parting clouds and shed the faintest trickle of light to assist me in finding my way back to the van. As I was leaving, I turned back towards the forest and could hear the family in the distance yelling muffled orders back and forth and watched as tiny lights flickered and bounced along the trail.

With a smile I turned to get into the van, when I heard "Ohhhhhh! Jeeeez!" followed by a loud CRASH! and then an equally loud SPLASH! as the light at the bottom of the hill was extinguished. From the depths of the forest came a sudden silence, interrupted only by the hissing of steam, which was soon followed by the emphatic curses of Mr. Skye.

Both he and the Coleman lamp ended up in the creek as the Alder log finally, and fittingly, gave way.

Dr. Bruce Burton, DVM, B.Sc., M.Sc., works with the animals at The Greater Vancouver Zoo and with 'animal stars' in the local film industry. He has extensive expertise in domestic and wild animal biology, health care and nutrition, as well as fish and game-farming experience. In addition to his busy practice in Bradner, Dr. Burton teaches at The University of British Columbia, and is often called upon by the SPCA to help exotic animals in need.

He chooses to write down his experiences so they are not lost, but rather shared with others. He wants his children and grandchildren to be able to read them first hand. I hope you enjoy your own sneak peek into his daily routine!

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