“Moving a hand carefully around the uterus I began the fascinating business of sorting out the tangle which is just about my favorite job in practice. I had to bring a head and two legs up together in order to deliver a lamb; but they had to belong to the same lamb or I was in trouble. It was a matter of tracing each leg back to see if it was a hind or a fore, to find if it joined a shoulder or disappeared into the depths”.

That single paragraph of Scottish veterinarian James Herriot’s second book is something I pull from my mental reference library each lambing season. His stories provide not just entertainment but an education, of sorts. A sizable portion of the animal husbandry skills I use today on our small farm come to me courtesy of a childhood spent immersed in Herriot’s Yorkshire veterinary practice. It’s how I know how to untangle a jumble of lamb limbs while elbow deep inside an ewe, about giving beer to a grumpy sow (only works if she is a happy, sleep drunk and not a mean drunk!) and how to work cattle without a single modern piece of cattle working facilities. A little James Herriot education goes a long ways when you grow up and decide that filling your farm with livestock would be the perfect way to absorb every moment of free time for years to come.

In the first four years we owned our farm, I had the good fortune to combine my literary education from Dr. Herriot with a real life practicum taught by our local veterinarian, Dr. Larry Lounsbery. Already fifty years in the field when I first retained his services for an elderly barn cat, over the next several years “Doc” came to my rescue more times than I care to count. Whether it was rescuing a choking sheep or saving our family dog from an allergic reaction, he met each emergency with the same calm and care Dr. Herriot always brought to his books.

Doc was one of the increasingly rare breed of veterinarians who treat all animals, great and small, in their rural practices. As the veterinary field, like human medicine, becomes ever more specialized, these practitioners still fill their days with appointments as broad and varied as those found in Herriot’s humble farm practice. Busy mixed clinics like Dr. Lounsbery’s meant that more often than not, I was his veterinary assistant on farm calls, especially after-hours emergencies. Without me realizing it, Doc continued my education and as our doctor-client relationship grew, Doc came to expect more of me and taught me to expect more of myself.

One Saturday morning I was about to leave our farm for a funeral when I did a final walk-through of the lambing barn only to find an ewe in labor. She was straining and stressed and at least week before her due date and I knew something had gone badly wrong. Though the morning was chilly and I was due at the church, I nevertheless got a bucket of warm soapy water and rolled up my sleeves, just as Dr. Herriot often did on the moors of Yorkshire.

I reached inside, hoping for a simple problem, only to find the tail and hips of the biggest lamb I had ever felt. The baby was backwards and both feet were facing the wrong way. I needed to get my hand in further and bring his hind legs around so he could come out but no amount of pushing seemed to make room for my hand and I began to feel as panicky as the ewe. I knew I needed help. A frantic call to Doc yielded no good news, he was about to go into a surgery and could not come to the farm for hours. I was on my own.

And yet I was not.

Doc’s calm voice on the phone, combined with the mental imagery conjured by years of reading Herriot’s lambing stories, guided me through the panic. Slowly, measuring success in millimeters, I moved my hands along the curve of the baby’s wooly leg until I found a tiny hoof and carefully brought it around. One leg out made room for the other and soon I had a gasping, sneezing lamb sitting on what were once my carefully pressed church clothes.

At some point, my phone had dropped and from the depths of the straw, I heard Doc’s voice call out “Did he make it?”. I gave him the affirmative and he replied “Well good for him and good for you!”, and heard the satisfaction and pride that all of us who choose to care for animals feel when we get one of those small wins we all live for.

****I wrote this story two years ago for the SDPB magazine, as we celebrated the premiere of the first season of “All Creatures Great and Small”. Later that same year, we lost Dr. Lounsbery and I still miss him dearly. You just never know the people who might end up having the biggest impact on your life…and conversely, how you might be the person have a giant impact on someone else’s life and never realize it. Never discount the connections you make in this world.

Related Posts