Down But Not Out

I know I haven’t written for a while… I’d love to say that life has been too busy, filled with incredible adventures, but the truth is – I got wrecked.

I under-estimated a cow, she tried to kill me and I’ve spent most of the past 3 months nursing myself slowly back to health.

“What were you doing all by yourself with a cow that had just calved?”

Yep. I’ve heard it.

This is what we do. This is what hundreds, if not thousands, of ranchers do every day during calving season. Most of us have full-time jobs away from the farm. If you are the one person home at the time a calf drops, you go out to vaccinate and tag it before it gains the strength to outrun you – which is a freakishly short period of time, hours at best, minutes at worst.

There is no “neighborhood calf watch” program. We don’t rally the troops, hold hands and move as a group into neighboring pastures to check on herds. When we see an expectant cow that wanders off from the herd and has her tail stuck out straight for more than 5 minutes, we grab our vet packs, a Sharpie pen and if we remember, our cell phone, and then head for the pasture.

I watched her struggle from afar. She stood, she lied down, she stood back up. She had an amniotic bag hanging down with what looked like clear fluid and I was pretty certain I could make out a front hoof. Every time she stood up to move, the bag receded, so I stayed my distance, not to add stress. I watched this go on for hours. That’s normal. This was her first calf. These things take time.

It’s when she started grunting that I started to worry. Each contraction would produce that single front hoof but nothing more, then it would recede. Her amniotic fluid bag continued to grow until it finally broke. She was in trouble. I called for help and slowly started working behind her to move her to the corral where we had a squeeze so a vet could get to her to give her the help she needed to get this baby out. Once she flashed me a sideways look that made me a little nervous, but my husband was there to help me get her to the pen without incident.

Some very appreciated, seasoned ranch hands and cattlemen arrived to help us pull this calf out within an hour of her water bag breaking. We got her in the shoot, got a chain around the calf’s front hawks and pulled. He was stuck. The calf was in the proper position but was absolutely huge – and stuck. His nose was still pink but beginning to turn blue. We needed this baby out now and our mama was already tired. We got a rope tied to an ATV and gently stretched the birth canal and pulled with the ATV at the same time the cow had a contraction – and with a splash of fluid, the bull calf was born.

He was the size of my calf born six weeks earlier and not quick to respond. The experienced cattlemen used the time-honored trick of tickling the new calf’s nostril with hay. The bull calf sputtered and coughed and his nose began to pink up. The mama began licking the baby and we knew all would be well. He got a quick ear tag, a shot of selenium, a quick iodine dip of his umbilical cord and we banded him while we could still catch him. We left cow and calf alone to bond. His head was swollen and he wasn’t quick to stand, but letting the mama bond with her baby trumped anything else we could do.

A first-time mama cow has a lot to learn in the first few hours after giving birth. Miss Piggy was starting off right by licking her baby clean and learning his scent. This licking also stimulates the calf. In a perfect world, the calf is up and feeding on that antibody-rich colostrum within the first hour of life. The reality is, not all cows accept their calves and not all calves figure out where to find their milk source. This bull calf seemed to flounder around a bit more than most. He kept turning around, away from the udder, then he’d lay down. More than once, I had to wave Miss Piggy back because she was stepping right on top of her baby. By nightfall though, the little bull calf had a big white milk mustache so I went to sleep feeling good that all would be well.

How wrong I was…

We kept them in the corral that night. It was a traumatic birth that warranted a watchful eye. Miss Piggy got a big flake of alfalfa, she had water, it was a warm but not hot summer evening.  It was simply a matter of this calf getting a chance to perk up a bit more before we let them both out into the pasture to join the rest of the herd.

I went out the next day to find the bull calf tucked in between the squeeze and the corral panel. Miss Piggy stood over him. I stood outside the corral and watched. He sensed my presence and got up, still shaky, walked away from his mama and lied down in the first patch of shade he came to. “Hmmm… That’s not normal,” I thought. Most calves, even in the sub-freezing temps of winter, are so active by day 2 that they are hard to catch – and certainly not shaky. I stood outside the corral and continued to watch. Something was off with this calf – but what?

My presence made both Miss Piggy and her calf uneasy. She’d quietly call him to her and he’d stand up but tended to go to the nearest shadow, then lied down. That was weird. Most babies go right to their mama. Something was definitely wrong. He shuffled, he floundered. It was then that I began to wonder if he could see. And why was he still so shaky? Did he need a colostrum or glucose supplement? Was Miss Piggy stressing him out being separated from the herd for so long?

I decided to let them out of the corral so I could watch how they interacted among the rest of the herd. This is where everything went terribly wrong. I underestimated a bossy first-time mama with her baby.

The bull calf was in the far corner of the corral and Miss Piggy stood guard over him.  I was conscientious to give them both plenty of room. From the opposite corner of the corral, I opened one set of gates and then the second. She didn’t seem to notice. I started walking towards her with the plan to get behind them and apply just enough pressure that she’d walk out of the corral and join the herd with her baby by her side. I never made it that far.

I made it about 15 steps into the middle of the corral when the bull calf let out a squeal and Miss Piggy turned towards me with her head down and a glazed over look in her eye that made it clear – she wanted to kill me.

I knew I was in big trouble. I also knew if I turned to run, she’d charge and trample me. My only hope was to convince her that I wasn’t a threat and I slowly started to back up. She snorted, threw her head and charged me at full speed.

(I’ve been told by experienced rodeo participants that it was at that moment that I should have stepped to the side and she would have gone right past me.  I don’t remember ever having that option but I have faith that had it existed, I would have instinctively done so.  It all happened so fast that the details all blend together but the following is what I do remember.)

I punched her in the eye as her head hit my stomach and she rolled me off her shoulder. Unfortunately, this resulted in both of my arms being pinned down as I hit the ground nose first. “Crack!!!” I knew I broke my nose. I felt the numbness of a direct facial blow and the warm sensation of blood streaming down my face.

I got up on my hands and knees but she wasn’t done. She got her head underneath me and threw my body like a rag doll high into the air. I landed on her back, still on my hands and knees, facing her tail. At this point, two thoughts went through my mind.

My first was, “Oh crap, do I hold on or do I let go? I don’t want the business end of this cow!” I knew if she kicked me in the head, she’d kill me. Game over. To-do list, done.

My other thought was one of those random thoughts that you never imagine entering your mind at a time like this. It was, “Oh Miss Piggy, you have such soft hair!” Red Angus are new to me and I was genuinely amazed at how soft her back was — and then I felt my universe shift.  I was suddenly weightless.

I remember watching the corral get smaller and smaller below me as she launched me high into the air — things get a bit fuzzy after that.  I don’t remember hitting the ground, I just remember being overcome with the overwhelming need to get up and get out of that corral.

Miss Piggy was back in the corner of the pen, still snorting, stomping and clearly not pleased.  My body felt numb.  I ran my tongue over my teeth and was instantly relieved that they were all intact.  I simultaneously stood and scooted myself to get behind a post in the corral to protect me from further attacks. My phone had fallen from my pocket and when I reached down to grab it, I saw my left kneecap.  It was no longer over my knee but resting oddly on the side of my leg. I knew I had about 10 seconds to get out of there before the pain hit.

I don’t remember climbing over the corral panels but I know I did. I had taken our side-by-side out to the corral that day and I got in the driver’s seat with only one thought: I need ice. I didn’t look at my knee, it made me nauseous. Yes, I am an ER nurse and I’ve seen more than one dislocated kneecap. It’s different when it’s your own.

It was about the moment I drove over the cattleguard to our house that the pain hit. My face was numb but the pain in my leg was excruciating. It was all I could do not to vomit. I remember very distinctly recalling my recent DNA findings and saying aloud, “I’m a f-ing Viking, I can do this.”

By the time I got to the house, the joint that was once my knee was too swollen to bend and removing myself from of the driver’s seat of the side-by-side was a challenge. Thank goodness I had left a shovel out and it was within an arm’s length of the ATV.  My only focus was getting ice packs on my injuries.

I grabbed the shovel and used it to physically drag myself out of the driver’s seat.  I used it as a cane until I came to another shovel. I blame the dogs for the scratches in our newly refinished wood floors, but I suspect it was the shovels I used as crutches to make it to the freezer for some ice packs. Home, with ice on my wounds, I took the cell phone from my back pocket and made the call to my husband, “Hunny, Miss Piggy tried to kill me. I need help.”

He’d just sat down at a funeral and told me so. I remember he sounded annoyed. I told him that I was pretty sure she broke my nose and probably broke my leg. His tone changed.  All he said was, “I’m on my way,” and hung up. I can’t pretend to know what went through his mind, I only hear from the people who were there when he got the call that he turned as white as a ghost, stood up and disappeared.

Things get a bit fuzzy at this point. I knew I needed ice. I knew I needed to get to the house. I knew I needed to call for help. As far as I was concerned, I’d completed all three tasks. I closed my eyes and focused on anything but my body to help dull the pain.

My leg was writhing with spasms. My kneecap was on the side of my leg. I’d put my tooth through my lip. My face was swelling like a dinner plate. I had 2 lumps on my face that looked like noses and neither one was straight. I concentrated on not vomiting. My neck was okay. I didn’t believe I’d been knocked out. My foot wasn’t blue, I could feel and wiggle my toes. Even though she’d come straight for me, the impact to my chest had been soft and my breathing was fine. My knee was wrecked and I was sure my nose was broken but neither of these was life-threatening. I knew this would hurt for a while and might leave a permanent mark, but I was really and truly okay.

My next memory was the look on my husband’s face and hearing him say, “I’m calling an ambulance.” I remember telling him that I was okay, “It’s just my nose and my knee and you’re not calling an ambulance.” I vaguely remember telling him he’d have to help me splint my leg and that it would hurt but we just have to do it and where to find the supplies.

When people speak of an outer-body experience, I think I understand a little more of what they are speaking about now.  Splinting my leg did hurt.  It hurt so bad that I disconnected from my body for an instant. I suspect that was also the instant that my kneecap slipped back into alignment.

My next memory was looking up to see a young man in a paramedic shirt and asking him where he’d come from – my husband had called our neighbors for help to get me into the car and they’d sent an EMT trained employee to our house. He checked the CMS (circulation, motor skills and nerve sensations) of my leg and husband’s splinting job and helped load me up into my car to go visit my coworkers at the local ER to get checked out.

I’ve been an ER nurse for 11 years and covered lab draws for the ER the 10 years prior to that so believe me when I tell you, I’ve spent much of my life behind those emergency room doors – and that little of that experience prepared me for being on the patient side of that stretcher. I was more hurt than I’d ever been in my life, I was afraid my time on the ski slope had just come to an abrupt end, I was in so much pain that concentrating on not puking was really my only focus and I knew I was covered in blood, sweat, dirt and cow poop with a very crooked nose. My coworkers rose to the occasion, like they always do, and made me feel safe and as normal as can be expected as they fixed the nausea and pain.

By the time we’d arrived at the ER, my kneecap was back in place. CT scans and X-rays showed no fractures of either the leg or facial bones. No neck, rib or spine fractures. I got lucky. I had head to toe bruising, soft tissue swelling, sprains, strains and likely a mild concussion but considering an angry, 1200 pound animal had just thrown me around like a rag doll – I was essentially fine.

That was 11 weeks, an MRI, 6 weeks of an immobilized knee and 5 weeks of physical therapy ago. The hardest part was the first 3 weeks of no driving. Correction, that was the second hardest part. The truly most difficult part for me in this healing process is having the patience to let my body heal. I had a significant bruise on the end of my femur with enough swelling under the kneecap to render my knee joint useless. It took a full six weeks to be able to bend my leg at all – yes, AT ALL… I’ve basically been gimping around like a peg-leg pirate… A very SLOW peg-leg pirate… Tasks that once took minutes took hours. No lie.

My face swelled, I got two dark blue shiners, my now slightly offset nose had a lump next to it for a few weeks and it took a while for the facial lacerations and contusions to heal but they did. I still have some visible bruises on both legs and that swelling around my left knee – but it bends and is beginning to look more like a knee again.

It’s also taken most of these past 11 weeks to convince the people who saw me at my worst that I’m really okay. For weeks my husband stared at me with a weird look on his face and only said, “I’m so glad you’re not dead.” I think seeing the look on my loved ones faces when they saw me injured was honestly harder for me than anything – but I’m mostly better now, besides an awkward limp and weird piece of cartilage in my nose. The lump might be here to stay but the limp gets better every day. The body’s self-healing properties are truly amazing.

We traded poor Miss Piggy off with her calf for some hay. While she was reacting instinctively, she was also too aggressive for us to have out here. I’ve been around cattle for several years and this level of aggression was a first for me. I simply underestimated her. It won’t happen again. I don’t know that I’ll ever know what was wrong with her bull calf. My husband is my source for info and he “never wants to speak of that cow again”. Frankly, after all that I’ve put him through, I’m inclined to honor his wishes.

So that’s the story of my summer/fall – mostly wrecked with hopes of being healed up by ski season. Right now I’m just grateful to be alive and surrounded by a tribe that would miss me if I weren’t.

I also no longer want to breed bucking bulls and will second guess any calf born with a sire named Gladiator. It just seems smart.

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