The lamp swung in his right hand. It rocked in the wind as its light arced around the doorway like a pendulum, It and he were lashed by the whip-like anger of the Atlantic storm. The rainwater poured from the bottom of his glistening rain gear, forming a puddle at his Wellington-booted feet. His left hand held the hand of his son, the younger face pale in contrast to the weathered cragginess of the older man’s features—two generations of a long line of Western Ireland farmers linked in storm and concern. Mountainy men. Well used to hardship. “You’ll follow us,” he said.
“No option,” I replied. “Another one of the enormous new Continental bulls used on a tiny heifer and now she can’t deliver the calf, huh?” I instantly regretted such an ungracious response before adding, “you’re only the third one today!” It was a vain attempt to seem humorous, a failure at the end of a long November day that had begun with a call to the phone at six in the morning to deal with the first of the day’s three difficult bovine births. I had never performed a Caesarean section by myself until I arrived as a freshly graduated vet starting his career in this long-established practice.
My boss had served the local community, single handedly and devotedly, for more than 30 years. He had decided that it was time to hire an assistant, time take it a little easier. This was evident at my interview, which had taken place in his favorite local pub at lunchtime. His soup and sandwich were followed by a very large brandy, which appeared before him as if by magic. I was astonished by its volume. Clearly his usual.
“Will you have one?” he asked. “Nervous colitis” was his dismissive explanation for it when I declined. He taught by example. His Cesareans were swift, accomplished with the flair and seeming simplicity that only comes with enormous experience.
He deemed that I was ready to be loosed on his clientele within the first few days of my arrival. My readiness was questionable. My first call to carry out routine testing on a paltry six cows would have taken him as many minutes as there were animals. He expressed his amazement, forcibly, when I returned to base having accomplished my task in a mere two hours!
The learning curve gathered pace swiftly. Necessity is a wonderful stimulus, the necessity of getting back to the snug coziness of my landlady’s kitchen for personal refueling before setting out on the next of the day’s many rounds, or as a haven of rest between them: stewed tea in the enormous enamel vat that doubled as a teapot. Scones and buttered toast. Lashings of spuds with everything. Her insistence on generous second helpings.
It was very hard to leave my warm place of refuge on this stormy night and follow as bid. But I did and my headlights followed those of father and son as we climbed higher and higher into the local mountains. The rain changed from vertical to horizontal. We passed the small villages that were lit up like oases on this darkest of nights. We drove and drove until the tarmac gave way to gravel, until at last, there we were. His farm. A small holding, typical of the area: a house, a barn and a cow byre.
What was not typical was the numbers of cars that were parked there. There were fifteen of them. All belonged to stalwarts of the local community and each had been summoned to assist with the heifer’s efforts to deliver. Each had done their best but had failed. Calling me was clearly the last option. Rather than disband frustrated, they had chosen to stay. To witness, or perhaps more accurately, to judge. To judge my competence or more likely the lack of it, for themselves. in case they ever found themselves in a similar situation. Or because, in this part of the world, halfway up a mountain, on a night like this, there wasn’t a lot else to do.
The cow byre had spaces for six. Three open animal stalls on the left and three on the right, with a central passageway. My audience had chosen to fill those on my left. My patient, totally unfazed by both her and their unsuccessful efforts in this maternity ward that doubled as a milking parlor and now theatre, was in the middle on the right, quietly chewing her cud.
Sandwiches, too, had been chewed. The onus of hospitality in this part of the world is significant. Audience payback had extended to ham and cheese between wads of thickly buttered crusty white bread, scones and jam, and slabs of fruit cake. Tea steamed in mugs; or there was poteen (potato liquor), or for the fussy, whiskey.
None of course, for me. Instead, stage-whisper mutterings—are you sure he’s old enough to be Qualified?”—and some more ribald comments about possible future interactions for me with local farmers’ daughters and the resultant potential for free veterinary medicine, followed by guffaws of laughter, accompanied my entrance.
My job began with kneeling beside my bovine lady, sedating her and washing, shaving and surgically scrubbing her side. Then followed gently injecting her with the local anesthetic that would allow me to painlessly incise her, extract her calf, and make the repair that would leave her ready to resume life as normal.
All went well and swiftly, until I stood and lifted the very big and heavy bull calf from deep inside her, the head down and suspended by the ankles. Sedation of the expectant mother had, as is inevitable, also sedated her initially unborn calf as well. That and the prolonged labour meant that resuscitation of the now extracted calf was a very immediate priority.
“Come on lads!” I shouted. “Give a hand! Let’s get this one going!
“Swing it from side to side, to drain its lungs! Throw cold water on it to shock it to begin breathing! Rub it all over with handfuls of straw to stimulate and dry it!” All to little avail. The lateness of the hour, the poteen and the whiskey and the bleariness of their eyes, rendered their efforts pathetic. The calf was swung, but for no more than a few inches in either direction. The bucket was deemed too heavy to lift, so fingers were dipped in the water which were then vaguely flipped in the calf’s direction. Efforts to rub it with straw missed more often than they connected.
It was too much for me.
“Leave it!” I cried, exasperated. “I’ll do it myself!” I did so and was hugely relieved when the first great gasp of breath shuddered through the calf’s mighty frame. I lay the newborn on a bed of straw as it became fully conscious, and I returned at once to its mother. My turn to mutter about other people! Rescrubbed, I reached for my needle holder to insert the sutures that would draw the incised skin back together, placed the first, and then, WHAM!
The local anesthetic had worn off. The delay due to resuscitation meant that her very active resentment of needle insertion into now un-anesthetized skin could be expressed forcibly. It was. Her mighty kick caught me on both thighs and shot me across the entire building. I struggled to overcome the mind-numbing pain of her hammer blow to my limbs. As I did so, I became aware that I had landed in the middle of the “hospitality.” Bits of sandwiches, tooth-marked crusts of bread, crumbles of scones, smears of jam, and pieces of fruit cake filled my hair. Before a moment had passed there were heads and shoulders under each of my arms, lifting me to carry me back to the cow!
Fresh injection of local anesthetic overcame the problem that had arisen in my relationship with my patient. Soon afterwards, she and the calf were well on their way to uneventful recovery. There was no longer any focus of interest for the audience. They left, quietly.
It was now time to settle the bill. Cash is the time honored tradition. The man slowly produced a huge wad of it from a very deep pocket. More than I had ever seen. “How much?” he asked. I mentioned the going rate, thinking for the first time that it didn’t seem half enough. He counted every note, in the smallest possible denominations, painfully, as if each was his last.
“I was very worried there when you got kicked” he said, “because if she’d broken your legs, we’d never have got anybody else out tonight to go and finish the job!”
About Dr. Des Leadon
Des Leadon is an Irish veterinarian who specializes in horses, especially racehorses. His work has taken him around the world, literally, from. Sligo to Stansted and from Siberia to South America. This collection of stories (all true) explores that world in a series of adventures and misadventures, which are factual and sometimes frightening, but always humorous. They begin with a stark career choice, then move to airplanes that ran out of fuel, to an aria sung by a frustrated opera singer in a blizzard on the tarmac in the Russian winter, then, bizarrely, to a letter written to Vladimir Putin. Shergar is here, too, as he features in an attempt to raise him, phoenix-like, from the ashes. The unexpected hazards that occur in race riding are also captured in these tales from a self-confessed and most highly unsuccessful amateur jockey. It’s not all about horses, though. It also has stories of things such as calvings and greyhounds that suffer from depression.
Leadon is a prolific author in the scientific literature. He also has appeared on radio discussing a variety of issues and was featured in the BBC TV documentary Flying Horses, which attracted an audience of more than 9.5 million viewers when first broadcast.
Editor’s note: This series of articles was edited by award-winning author and photographer Milton C. Toby, J.D.