Let sleeping vets lie, p.12
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       Let Sleeping Vets Lie, p.12

           James Herriot
I had been deceived by his almost delicate appearance into thinking that

  he wouldn't be up to the job," the pallid face, the large, sensitive

  eyes and slender frame didn't seem fitted far the seven days a week

  milking, feeding, mucking-out slog that was dairy farming. But I had

  been wrong.

  The fearless way he plunged in and grabbed at the hind feet of kicking

  cows for me to examine and his clenched-teeth determination as he hung

  on to the. noses of the big loose beasts at testing time made me change

  my mind in a hurry He worked endlessly and tirelessly and it was natural

  that his drive should have taken him to the south of Scotland to find a


  Harry's was an Ayrshire herd - unusual among the almost universal short

  thorns in the Dales - and there was no doubt an injection of the famous

  Newton blood would be a sure way of improving his stock.

  "He's got prize winners on both his sire and dam's side," the young

  farmer said. "And a grand pedigree name, too. Newton Montmorency the

  Sixth -~ Monty for short."

  As though recognising his name, the calf raised his head from the bucket

  and looked at us. It was a comic little face - wet-muzzled, milk

  slobbered half way up his cheeks and dribbling freely from his mouth. I

  bent over into the pen and scratched the top of the hard little head,

  feeling the tiny horn buds no bigger than peas under my fingers.

  Limpid-eyed and unafraid, Monty submitted calmly to the caress for a few

  moments then sank his head again in the bucket.

  I saw quite a bit of Harry Sumner over the next few weeks and usually

  had a look at his expensive purchase. And as the calf grew you could see

  why he had cost 100. He was in a pen with three of Harry's own calves

  and his superiority was evident at a glance; the broad forehead and

  wide-set eyes; the deep chest and short straight legs; the beautifully

  even line of the back from shoulder to tail head. Monty had class; and

  small as he was he was all bull.

  He was about three months old when Harry rang to say he thought the calf

  had pneumonia. I was surprised because the weather was fine and warm and

  I knew Monty was in a draught-free building. But when I saw him I

  thought immediately that his owner's diagnosis was right. The heaving of

  the rib cage, the temperature of 105 degrees - it looked fairly

  straightforward. But when I got my stethoscope on his chest and listened

  for the pneumonic sounds I heard nothing. His lungs were perfectly

  clear. I went over him several times but there was not a squeak, not a

  rare, not the slightest sign of consolidation.

  This was a facer. I turned to the farmer. "It's a funny one, Harry. He's

  sick, all right, but his symptoms don't add up to anything


  I was going against my early training because the first vet I ever saw

  practice with in my student days told me once: "If you don't know what's

  wrong with an animal for God's sake don't admit it. Give it a name call

  it McLuskie's Disease or Galloping Dandruff - anything you like, but

  give it a name." But no inspiration came to me as I looked at the

  panting, anxious-eyed little creature.~

  Treat the symptoms. That was the thing to do. He had a temperature so

  I'd: try to get that down for a start. I brought out my pathetic armoury

  of febrifuges; the injection of non-specific antiserum, the 'fever

  drink" of sweet spirit of nitre; but over the next two days it was

  obvious that the time-honoured remedies were, having no effect. ~

  On the fourth morning, Harry Sumner met me as I got out of my car. "He's

  walking funny, this morning, Mr. Herriot - and he seems to be blind."

  Blind! An unusual form of lead-poisoning - could that be it? I hurried

  into the calf pen and began to look round the walls, but there wasn't a

  scrap of paint anywhere and Monty had spent his entire life in there.

  And anyway, as I looked at him I realised that he wasn't really blind;

  his eyes were staring and slightly upturned and he blundered unseeingly

  around the pen, but he blinked as I passed my hand in front of his face.

  To complete my bewilderment he walked with a wooden, stiff-legged gait

  almost like a mechanical toy and my mind began to snatch at diagnostic

  straws - tetanus, no - meningitis - no, no; I always tried to maintain

  the calm, professional exterior but I had to fight an impulse to scratch

  my head and stand gaping.

  I got off the place as quickly as possible and settled down to serious

  thought as I drove away. My lack of experience didn't help, but I did

  have a knowledge of pathology and physiology and when stumped for a

  diagnosis I could usually work something out on rational grounds. But

  this thing didn't make sense.

  That night I got out my books, notes from college, back numbers of the

  Veterinary Record and anything else I could find on the subject of calf

  diseases. Somewhere here there would surely be a clue. But the volumes

  on medicine and surgery were barren of inspiration and I had about given

  up hope when I came upon the passage in a little pamphlet on calf

  diseases. "Peculiar, stilted gait, staring eyes with a tendency to gaze

  upwards, occasionally respiratory symptoms with high temperature." The

  words seemed to leap out at me from the printed page and it was as

  though the unknown author was patting me on the shoulder and murmuring

  reassuringly: "This is it, you see. It's all perfectly clear."

  I grabbed the phone and rang Harry Sumner. "Harry, have you ever noticed

  Monty and those other calves in the pen licking each other?"

  "Aye, they're allus at it, the little beggars. It's like a hobby with

  them. Why?"

  "Well I know what's wrong with your bull. He's got a hair ball."

  "A hair ball? Where?"

  "In the abomasum - the fourth stomach. That's what's ,setting up all

  those strange symptoms." , "Well I'll go to hell. What do we do about

  it, then?"

  "It'll probably mean an operation, but I'd like to try dosing him with

  liquid paraffin first. I'll put a pint bottle on the step for you if

  you'll come and collect it. Give him half a pint now and the same first

  thing in the morning. It might just grease the thing through. I'll see

  you tomorrow."

  I hadn't a lot of faith in the liquid paraffin. I suppose I suggested it

  for the sake of doing something while I played nervously with the idea

  of operating. And next morning the picture was as I expected; Monty was

  still rigid-limbed, still staring sightlessly ahead of him, and an

  oiliness round his rectum and down his tail showed that the paraffin had

  by-passed the obstruction.

  "He hasn't had a bite now for three days," Harry said. "I doubt he won't

  stick ~t much longer."

  I looked from his worried face to the little animal trembling in the

  pen. "You're right. We'll have to open him up straight away to have any

  hope of saving him. Are you willing to let me have a go?"

  "Oh, aye, let's be at t'job - sooner the better." He smiled at me. It

  was a confident smile and my stomach gave a lurch. His confidence could

  be badly misplaced because in those d
ays abdominal surgery in the bovine

  was in a primitive state. There were a few jobs we had begun to tackle

  fairly regularly but removal of a hair-ball wasn't one of them and my

  knowledge of the procedure was confined to some rather small-print

  reading in the text books.

  But this young farmer had faith in me. He thought I could do the job so

  it .~_ ~

  was no good letting him see my doubts. It was at times like this that I

  envied our colleagues in human medicine. When a surgical case came up

  they packed: their patient off to a hospital but the vet just had to get

  his jacket off on the spot and make an operating theatre out of the farm


  Harry and I busied ourselves in boiling up the instruments, setting out

  buckets of hot water and laying a clean bed of straw in an empty pen.

  Despite his weakness the calf took nearly sixty c.c."s of Nembutal into

  his vein before he was fully anaesthetised but finally he was asleep,

  propped on his back between two straw bales, his little hooves dangling

  above him. I was ready to start.

  It's never the same as it is in the books. The pictures and diagrams

  look so simple and straightforward but it is a different thing when you

  are cutting into a living, breathing creature with the abdomen rising

  and falling gently and the blood oozing beneath your knife. The

  abomasum, I knew, was just down there, slightly to the right of the

  sternum but as I cut through the peritoneum there was this slippery mass

  of fat-streaked omentum obscuring everthing; and as I pushed it aside

  one of the bales moved and Monty tilted to his left causing a sudden

  gush of intestines into the wound. I put the flat of my hand against the

  shining pink loops - it would be just great if my patient's insides

  started spilling out on to the straw before I had started.

  "Pull him upright, Harry, and shove that bale back into place," I

  gasped. The farmer quickly complied but the intestines weren't at all

  anxious to return to their place and kept intruding coyly as I groped

  for the abomasum. Frankly I was beginning to feel just a bit lost and my

  heart was thudding when I came upon something hard. It was sliding about

  beyond the wall of one of the stomachs - at the moment I wasn't sure

  which. I gripped it and lifted it into the wound. I had hold of the

  abomasum and that hard thing inside must be the hair-ball.

  Repelling the intestines which had made another determined attempt to

  push their way into the act, I incised the stomach and had my first look

  at the cause of the trouble. It wasn't a ball at all, rather a flat

  plaque of densely matted hair mixed freely with strands of hay, sour

  curd and a shining covering of my liquid paraffin. The whole thing was

  jammed against the pyloric opening.

  Gingerly I drew it out through the incision and dropped it in the straw.

  It wasn't till I had closed the stomach wound with the gut, stitched up

  the muscle layer and had started on the skin that I realised that the

  sweat was running down my face. As I blew away a droplet from my nose

  end Harry broke the silence. -, "It's a hell of a tricky job, isn't it?"

  he said. Then he laughed and thumped, my shoulder. "I bet you felt a bit

  queer the first time you did one of these!"

  I pulled another strand of suture silk through and knotted it. "You're

  right, Harry," I said. "How right you are."

  When I had finished we covered Monty with a horse rug and piled straw on

  top of that, leaving only his head sticking out. I bent over and touched

  a corner of the eye. Not a vestige of a corneal reflex. God, he was deep

  - had I given him too much anaesthetic? And of course there'd be

  surgical shock, too. As I left I glanced back at the motionless little

  animal. He looked smaller than ever and very vulnerable under the bare

  walls of the pen.

  I was busy for the rest of the day but that evening my thoughts kept

  coming back to Monty. Had he come out of it yet? Maybe he was dead. I

  hadn't the experience of previous cases to guide me and I simply had no

  idea of how a calf reacted to an operation like that. And I couldn't rid

  myself of the nagging consciousness of how much it all meant to Harry

  Sumner. The bull is half the; herd, they say, and half of Harry's future

  herd was Lying there under the straw: - he wouldn't be able to find that

  much money again.

  I jumped suddenly from my chair. It was no good, I had to find out what

  was happening Part of me rebelled at the idea of looking amateurish and

  u'su. c ~ myself by going fussing back, but, I thought, I could always

  say I had returned to look for an instrument The farm was in darkness as

  I crept into the pen. I shone my torch on the mound of straw and saw

  with a quick thump of the heart that the calf had not moved. I dropped

  to my knees and pushed a hand under the rug; he was breathing anyway.

  But there was still no eye reflex - either he was dying or he was taking

  a hell of a time to come out.

  In the shadows of the yard I looked across at the soft glow from the

  farmhouse kitchen Nobody had heard me. I slunk over to the car and drove

  off with the sick knowledge that I was no further forward. I still

  didn't know how the job was going to turn out.

  Next morning I had to go through the same thing again and as I walked

  stiffly across to the calf pen I knew for sure I'd see something this

  time. Either he'd be dead or better. I opened the outer door and almost

  ran down the passage. It was the third pen along and I stared hungrily

  into it.

  Monty was sitting up on his chest. He was still under the rug and straw

  and he looked sorry for himself but when a bovine animal is on its chest

  I always feel hopeful. The tensions flowed from me in a great wave. He

  had survived the operation - the first stage was over; and as I knelt

  rubbing the top of his head I had the feeling that we were going to win.

  And, in fact, he did get better, though I have always found it difficult

  to explain to myself scientifically why the removal of that pad of

  tangled fibres could cause such a dramatic improvement in so many

  directions. But there it was. His temperature did drop and his breathing

  returned to normal, his eyes did stop staring and the weird stiffness

  disappeared from his limbs.

  But though I couldn't understand it, I was none the less delighted. Like

  a teacher with his favourite pupil, I developed a warm proprietary

  affection for the calf and when I happened to be on the farm I found my

  feet straying unbidden to his pen. He always walked up to me and

  regarded me with friendly interest; it was as if he had a fellow feeling

  for me, too.

  He was rather more than a year old when I noticed the change. The

  friendly interest gradually disappeared from his eyes and was replaced

  by a thoughtful, speculative look; and he developed a habit of shaking

  his head at me at the same time.

  "I'd stop going in there, Mr. Herriot, if I were you," Harry said one

  day. "He's getting big and I reckon he's going to be a cheeky bugger

  before he's finished."

sp; But cheeky was the wrong word. Harry had a long, trouble-free spell and

  Monty was nearly two years old when I saw him again. It wasn't a case of

  illness this time. One or two of Harry's cows had been calving before

  their time and it was typical of him that he should ask me to blood test

  his entire herd for Brucellosis.

  We worked our way easily through the cows and I had a long row of glass

  tubes filled with blood in just over an hour.

  "Well, that's the lot in here," the farmer said. "We only have bull to

  do and we're finished." He led the way across the yard through the door

  into the calf pens and along a passage to the bull box at the end. He

  opened the half door and as I looked inside I felt a sudden sense of


  Monty was enormous. The neck with its jutting humps of muscle supported

  a head so huge that the eyes looked tiny. And there was nothing friendly

  in those eyes now; no expression at all, in fact, only a cold black

  glitter. He was standing sideways to me, facing the wall, but I knew he

  was watching me as he pushed his head against the stones, his great

  horns scoring the whitewash with slow, menacing deliberation.

  Occasionally he snorted from deep in his chest but apart from that he

  remained ominously still. Monty wasn't just a bull - he was a vast,

  brooding presence.

  Harry grinned as he saw me staring over the door. "Well, do you fancy

  popping inside to scratch his head? That's what you allus used to do."

  "No thanks." I dragged my eyes away from the animal. "But I wonder what

  my expectation of life would be if I did go in."

  "I reckon you'd last about a minute," Harry said thoughtfully. "He's a

  grand bull - all I ever expected - but by God he's a mean 'un. I never

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