Learning curve


The only people I could turn to looked like a gang of Marlboro men.

I was watching our oldest daughter, Emili, handle the wheel as she steered the car for the first time. Ten years old means I've had her more than half the time I'm going to. She was starting to grow up. Kerri and I always have made driving look easy, so I guess she figured it was a snap. But I lunged for the wheel several times to keep fenders clear of mail boxes and tires out of ditches. I'm sure in a few years, she'll be able to drive while talking on the phone, drinking a Coke and changing the radio station at the same time.

This evolution of confidence brought my mind back to my own learning curve as a young veterinarian. Living in the thriving metropolis of Claredon, Texas, I was surrounded by cowboys who had seen many more C-sections than me. It was three weeks after graduation, and I had never done one, or seen one for that matter. This meant that the first one I was ever going to see was going to be performed by me. Think about that, and then get nervous with me.

These weren't just any cowboys; they were cowboys from a ranch south of town that had a reputation for being the best. I was irked at Texas A&M for never affording me the opportunity to see or do this procedure. Oh, I had seen it on film once, but that's like watching a TV commercial for Dr. Pepper and knowing what it tastes like.

The cowboys were sizing me up. They watched every move. Their glares seemed to pierce my artificial external confidence. They could smell nervous energy, and I was already exhausted from trying to deliver the calf.

Oh yes, I had already pulled, poked, strained, twisted, lubricated, sweated and groaned for about two hours, but to no avail. All the other veterinarians were gone, and the only people I could turn to looked like a gang of Marlboro men. To make matters worse, they all thought I knew what I was doing.

The film at veterinary school had shown the baby being delivered from the underside with the cow laying on her back. I had gathered from the conversation amongst the cowboys that Dr. Deyhle did them standing through the left flank. What was I going to do? I had never seen a cow cut open in the flank much less delivered a calf through that area. Besides, if they had never seen one taken through the belly, they wouldn't know if I was messing up or not. With that path of logic, I proceeded to tell them that recent research had shown that the calf and cow did much better if the baby was taken through the belly. I added a tidbit about no visible scar, which could bolster price of an animal. These details triggered a few moments of low rumbling as they pondered something new. If there is one thing I had learned about people that live on a ranch that is 50 miles from the closest town, it was that something new must be studied for a while before it is accepted.

After a few minutes of high-level discussion between the eldest cowboys, they decided the belly approach would be OK. We all knew that the calf was already dead when they brought her in, so they likely figured that they didn't have much to lose.

I went to work with trembling hands. We put a local block in her belly and started cutting. As sheer dumb luck would have it, the surgery went perfectly. I was in and out in about 20 minutes. She got up and loaded in the trailer like nothing had happened. These guys thought they had just witnessed the newest thing in cow C-sections. I could hear them comment among each other about how easy it was and how there was no scar that would keep her from selling.

They all piled into a crew-cab pick-up and drove off while still discussing the benefits of the belly procedure. As for me, I was never so glad to be finished with anything in my life. I could feel stomach juices churning away at the ulcer that I was sure had developed during the past half-hour. How many more of these "first time I have ever seen it was when I was doing it" things was I going to endure?

I grew up a little that day. I never did another C-section through the belly for anyone else but the cowboys on that ranch. Even today, the ranch insists on the procedure.

As for me, I hate doing them through the belly. If I can help it, I'll never do another one. I finally got to watch Dr. Deyhle do one standing, and boy is it easier. I guess we all have to almost hit the mailbox and swerve away from the ditch a few times before we poise ourselves to succeed. I've done hundreds of C-sections on cows during the years, and now, I can do them while talking on the telephone, drinking a Coke and changing the radio station.

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