It shouldnt happen to a.., p.17
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       It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, p.17

           James Herriot
 
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kind of black morning when country vets wonder about their choice of

  profession. Shivering as the ever-present passage draught struck at my

  pyjamaed legs, I switched on the light and opened the door. I saw a

  small figure muffled in an old army greatcoat and balaclava leaning on a

  bicycle. Beyond him the light spilled onto a few feet of streaming

  pavement where the rain beat down in savage swathes.

  "Sorry to ring your bell at this hour, guvnor," he said. "My names Rudd,

  Birch Tree Farm, Coulston. I've got a heifer calvin' and she's not

  getting on with t'job. Will you come."

  I looked closer at the thin face, at the water trickling down the cheeks

  and dripping from the end of the nose. "Right, I'll get dressed and come

  straight along But why don't you leave your bike here and come with me

  in the car? Coulston's about four miles isn't it and you must be soaked

  through."

  "Nay, nay, it'll be right." The face broke into the most cheerful of

  grins and under the sopping balaclava a pair of lively blue eyes glinted

  at me. "I'd only have to come back and get it another time. I'll get off

  now and you won't be there long afore me."

  He mounted his bike quickly and pedalled away. People who think farming

  is a pleasant, easy life should have been there to see the hunched

  figure disappear into the blackness and the driving rain. No car, no

  telephone, a night up with the heifer, eight miles biking in the rain

  and a back-breaking day ahead of him. Whenever I thought of the

  existence of the small farmer it made my own occasional bursts of

  activity seem small stuff indeed.

  I produced a nice live heifer calf for Dick that first morning and

  later, gratefully drinking a cup of hot tea in the farmhouse kitchen, I

  was surprised at the throng of young Rudds milling around me; there were

  seven of them and they were unexpectedly grown up. Their ages ranged

  from twenty odd down to about ten and I hadn't thought of Dick as

  middle-aged; in the dim light of the doorway at Skeldale House and later

  in the byre lit only by a smoke-blackened oil lamp his lively movements

  and perky manner had seemed those of a man in his thirties. But as I

  looked at him now I could see that the short, wiry hair was streaked

  with grey and a maze of fine wrinkles spread from around his eyes onto

  his cheeks.

  In their early married life the Rudds, anxious like all farmers for male

  children, had observed with increasing chagrin the arrival of five

  successive daughters. "We nearly packed up then," Dick confided to me

  once; but they didn't and their perseverance was rewarded at last by the

  appearance of two fine boys. A farmer farms for his sons and Dick had

  something to work for now.

  As I came to know them better I used to observe the family with wonder.

  The five girls were all tall, big-limbed, handsome, and already the two

  chunky young boys gave promise of massive growth. I kept looking from

  them to their frail little parents - 'not a pickin' on either of us', as

  Mrs. Rudd used to say - and wonder how the miracle had happened.

  It puzzled me, too, how Mrs. Rudd, armed only with the milk cheque from

  Dick's few shaggy cows, had managed to feed them all, never mind bring

  them to this state of physical perfection. I gained my first clue one

  day when I had been seeing some calves and I was asked to have a 'bit ."

  dinner' with them. Butcher's meat was a scarce commodity on the hill

  farms and I was familiar with the usual expedients for filling up the

  eager stomachs before the main course - the doughy slab of Yorkshire

  pudding or the heap of suet dumpling. But Mrs. Rudd had her own method a

  big bowl of rice pudding with lots of milk was her hors d'oeuores. It

  was a new one on me and I could see the family slowing down as they

  ploughed their way through. I was ravenous when I sat down but after the

  rice I viewed the rest of the meal with total detachment.

  Dick believed in veterinary advice for everything so I was a frequent

  visitor at Birch Tree Farm. After every visit there was an unvarying

  ritual; I was asked into the house for a cup of tea and the whole family

  downed tools and sat down to watch me drink it. On weekdays the eldest

  girl was out at work and the boys were at school but on Sundays the

  ceremony reached its full splendour with myself sipping the tea and all

  nine Rudds sitting around in what I can only call an admiring circle. My

  every remark was greeted with nods and smiles all round. There is no

  doubt it was good for my ego to have an entire family literally hanging

  on my words, but at the same time it made me feel curiously humble.

  I suppose it was because of Dick's character. Not that he was unique in

  any way - there were thousands of small farmers just like him - but he

  seemed to embody the best qualities of the Dalesman; the

  indestructibility, the tough philosophy, the unthinking generosity and

  hospitality. And there were the things that were Dick's own; the

  integrity which could be read always in his steady eyes and the humour

  which was never very far away. Dick was no wit but he was always trying

  to say ordinary things in a funny way. If I asked him to get hold of a

  cow's nose for me he would say solemnly "Ah'll endeavour to do so', or I

  remember when I was trying to lift a square of plywood which was penning

  a calf in a corner he said "Just a minute till ah raise portcullis'.

  When he broke into a smile a kind of radiance flooded his pinched

  features.

  When I held my audiences in the kitchen with all the family reflecting

  Dick's outlook in their eager laughter I marvelled at their utter

  contentment with their lot. None of them had known ease or softness but

  it didn't matter; and they looked on me as a friend and I was proud.

  Whenever I left the farm I found something on the seat of my car - a

  couple of home-made scones, three eggs. I don't know how Mrs. Rudd

  spared them but she never failed.

  Dick had a burning ambition - to upgrade his stock until he had a dairy

  herd which would live up to his ideals. Without money behind him he knew

  it would be a painfully slow business but he was determined. It probably

  wouldn't be in his own lifetime but some time, perhaps when his sons

  were grown up, people would come and look with admiration at the cows of

  Birch Tree.

  I was there to see the very beginning of it. When Dick stopped me on the

  road one morning and asked me to come up to his place with him I knew by

  his air of suppressed excitement that something big had happened. He led

  me into the byre and stood silent. He didn't need to say anything

  because I was staring unbelievingly at a bovine aristocrat.

  Dick's cows had been scratched together over the years and they were a

  motley lot. Many of them were old animals discarded by more prosperous

  farmers because of their pendulous udders or because they were 'three

  fitted 'uns'. Others had been reared by Dick from calves and tended to

  be rough-haired and scruffy. But half way down the byre, contrasting

  almost violently with her neighbours was what seemed to me a perfect

&
nbsp; Dairy Shorthorn cow.

  In these days when the Friesian has surged over England in a black and

  white flood and inundated even the Dales which were the very home of the

  Shorthorn, such cows as I looked at that day at Dick Rudd's are no

  longer to be seen, but she represented all the glory and pride of her

  breed. The wide pelvis tapering to fine shoulders and a delicate head,

  the level udder thrusting back between the hind legs, and the glorious

  colour - dark roan. That was what they used to call a 'good colour' and

  whenever I delivered a dark roan calf the farmer would say "It's

  good-coloured 'un', and it would be more valuable accordingly. The

  geneticists are perfectly right, of course: the dark roaned cows gave no

  more milk than the reds or the whites, but we loved them and they were

  beautiful.

  "Where did she come from, Dick?" I said, still staring.

  Dick's voice was elaborately casual. "Oh, ah went over to Weldon's of

  Cranby and picked her out. D'you like her."

  "She's a picture - a show cow. I've never seen one better." Weldons were

  the biggest pedigree breeders in the northern Dales and I didn't ask

  whether Dick had cajoled his bank manager or had been saving up for

  years just for this.

  "Aye, she's a seven galloper when she gets going' and top butter fat,

  too. Reckon she'll be as good as two of my other cows and a calf out of

  her'll be worth a bit." He stepped forward and ran his hand along the

  perfectly level, smoothly-fleshed back. "She's got a great fancy

  pedigree name but missus 'as called her Strawberry."

  I knew as I stood there in the primitive, cobbled byre with its wooden

  partitions and rough stone walls that I was looking not just at a cow

  but at the foundation of the new herd, at Dick Rudd's hopes for the

  future.

  It was about a month later that he phoned me. "I want you to come and

  look '1

  at Strawberry for me," he said. "She's been doing grand, tipplin' the

  milk out, but there's summat amiss with her this morning."

  The cow didn't really look ill and, in fact, she was eating when I

  examined her, but I noticed that she gulped slightly when she swallowed.

  Her temperature was normal and her lungs clear but when I stood up by

  her head I could just hear a faint snoring sound.

  "It's her throat, Dick," I said. "It may be just a bit of inflammation

  but there's a chance that she's starting a little abscess in there." I

  spoke lightly but I wasn't happy. Post-pharyngeal abscesses were, in my

  limited experience, nasty things. They were situated in an inaccessible

  place, right away behind the back of the throat and if they got very

  large could interfere seriously with the breathing. I had been lucky

  with the few I had seen; they had either been small and regressed or had

  ruptured spontaneously.

  I gave an injection of Prontosil and turned to Dick. "I want you to

  foment this area behind the angle of the jaw with hot water and rub this

  salve well in afterwards. You may manage to burst it that way. Do this

  at least three times a day."

  I kept looking in at her over the next ten days and the picture was one

  of steady development of the abscess. The cow was still not acutely ill

  but she was eating a lot less, she was thinner and was going off her

  milk. Most of the time I felt rather helpless as I knew that only the

  rupture of the abscess would bring relief and the various injections I

  was giving her were largely irrelevant. But the infernal thing was

  taking a long time to burst.

  It happened that just then Siegfried went off to an equine conference

  which was to last a week; for a few days I was at full stretch and

  hardly had time to think about Dick's cow until he biked in to see me

  one morning. He was cheerful as usual but he had a strained look.

  "Will you come and see Strawberry? She's gone right down t'nick over the

  last three days. I don't like look of her."

  I dashed straight out and was in the byre at Birch Tree before Dick was

  half way home. The sight of Strawberry stopped me in mid-stride and I

  stared, dry-mouthed at what had once been a show cow. The flesh had

  melted from her incredibly and she was little more than a hide-covered

  skeleton. Her rasping breathing could be heard all over the byre and she

  exhaled with a curious out-puffing of the cheeks which I had never seen

  before. Her terrified eyes were fixed rigidly on the wall in front of

  her. Occasionally she gave a painful little cough which brought saliva

  drooling from her mouth.

  I must have stood there a long time because I became aware of Dick at my

  shoulder.

  "She's the worst screw in the place now," he said grimly I winced

  inwardly. "Hell, Dick, I'm sorry. I'd no idea she'd got to this state. I

  can't believe it."

  "Aye well it all happened sudden like. I've never seen a cow alter so

  fast."

  "The abscess must be right at its peak," I said. "She hasn't much space

  to breathe through now." As I spoke the cow's limbs began to tremble and

  for a moment I thought she would fall. I ran out to the car and got a

  tin of Kaolin poultice. "Come on, let's get this on to her throat. It

  just might do the trick."

  When we had finished I looked at Dick. "I think tonight will do it. It's

  just got to burst."

  "And if it doesn't she'll snuff it tomorrow," he grunted. I must have

  looked very woebegone because suddenly his undefeated grin flashed out.

  "Never mind, lad, you've done everything anybody could do."

  But as I walked away I wasn't so sure. Mrs. Rudd met me at the car. It

  was her baking day and she pushed a little loaf into my hand. It made me

  feel worse.

  Chapter Twenty-three.

  , ."

  1 l l : 3 1

  That night I sat alone in the big room at Skeldale House and brooded.

  Siegfried was still away, I had nobody to turn to and I wished to God I

  knew what I was going to do with that cow of Dick's in the morning. By

  the time I went up to bed I had decided that if nothing further had

  happened I would have to go in behind the angle of the jaw with a knife.

  I knew just where the abscess was but it was a long way in and en route

  there were such horrific things as the carotid artery and the jugular

  vein. I tried hard to keep them out of my mind but they haunted my

  dreams; huge, throbbing, pulsating things with their precious contents

  threatening to burst at any moment through their fragile walls. I was

  awake by six o'clock and after an hour of staring miserably at the

  ceiling I could stand it no longer. I got up and, without washing or

  shaving, drove out to the farm.

  As I crept fearfully into the byre I saw with a sick dismay that

  Strawberry's stall was empty. So that was that. She was dead. After all,

  she had looked like it yesterday. I was turning away when Dick called to

  me from the doorway.

  "I've got her in a box on t'other side of the yard. Thought she'd be a

  bit more comfortable in there."

  I almost ran across the cobbles and as we approached the door the sound

  of the dreadful br
eathing came out to us. Strawberry was off her legs

  now - it had cost her the last of her strength to walk to the box and

  she lay on her chest, her head extended straight in front of her,

  nostrils dilated, eyes staring, cheeks puffing in her desperate fight

  for breath.

  But she was alive and the surge of relief I felt seemed to prick me into

  action, blow away my hesitations.

  "Dick," I said, "I've just got to operate on your cow. This thing is

  never going to burst in time, so it's now or never. But there's one

  thing I want you to know - the only way I can think of doing it is to go

  in from behind the jaw. I've never done this before, I've never seen it

  before and I've never heard of anybody doing it. If I nick any of those

  big blood vessels in there it'll kill her within a minute."

  "She can't last much longer like this," Dick grunted. "There's nowt to

  lose get on with it."

  In most operations in large bovines we have to pull the animal down with

  ropes and then use general anaesthesia, but there was no need for this

  with Strawberry. She was too far gone. I just pushed gently at her

  shoulder and she rolled on to her side and lay still.

  I quickly infiltrated the area from beneath the ear to the angle of the

  jaw with local anaesthetic then laid out my instruments.

  "Stretch her head straight out and slightly back, Dick," I said.

  Kneeling in the straw I incised the skin, cut carefully through the long

  thin layer of the brachiocephalic muscle and held the fibres apart with

  retractors. Somewhere down there was my objective and I tried to picture

  the anatomy of the region clearly in my mind. Just there the maxillary

  veins ran together to form the great jugular and, deeper and more

  dangerous, was the branching, ramifying carotid. If I pushed my knife

  straight in there, behind the mandibular salivary gland, i ~ !

  .

  !

  1 ; l .."

  I'd just about hit the spot. But as I held the razor-sharp blade over

  the small space I had cleared, my hand began to tremble. I tried to

  steady it but I was like a man with malaria. The fact had to be faced

  that I was too scared to cut any further. I put the scalpel down, lifted

  a pair of long artery forceps and pushed them steadily down through the

  hole in the muscle. It seemed that I had gone an incredibly long way

  when, almost unbelievingly, I saw a thin trickle of pus along the

  gleaming metal. I was into the abscess.

  Gingerly, I opened the forceps as wide as possible to enlarge the

  drainage hole and as I did the trickle became a creamy torrent which

  gushed over my hand, down the cow's neck and onto the straw. I stayed

  quite still till it had stopped, then withdrew the forceps.

  Dick looked at me from the other side of the head. "Now what, boss?" he

  said softly.

  "Well, I've emptied the thing, Dick," I said, 'and by all the laws she

  should soon be a lot better. Come on, let's roll her on to her chest

  again."

  When we had got the cow settled comfortably with a bale of straw

  supporting her shoulder, I looked almost entreatingly at her. Surely she

  would show some sign of improvement. She must feel some relief from that

  massive evacuation. But Strawberry looked just the same. The breathing,

  if anything, was worse.

  I dropped the soiled instruments into a bucket of hot water and

  antiseptic and began to wash them. "I know what it is. The walls of the

  abscess have become indurated - thickened and hardened, you know because

  it's been there a long time. We'll have to wait for them to collapse."

  Next day as I hurried across the yard I felt buoyantly confident. Dick

  was just coming out of the loose box and I shouted across to him, "Wele,

  how is she this morning."

  He hesitated and my spirits plummeted to zero. I knew what this meant;

 
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