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Monday, March 02, 2009

A shepherd's lament

In this our fifth lambing season, we have been hit head on with tragedy. I'm still reeling from last night's events, but I want to write this entry so that my mistakes and lessons might help other shepherds out there. And I want everyone to send energy, healing, prayers - whatever your inclination- up into the sky for Coral Bell, a very brave sheep.

In the past four seasons, we've had smooth deliveries and healthy ewes and babies. Last Thursday afternoon, I noticed that Coral Bell laid down in the barnyard. I had put the pregnant ewes there so during the day I could watch for any signs of labor starting. When Coral laid down, I thought, "Good, she's probably going to lamb soon", and I noticed she got up and down a couple times, another early sign of pending lambing. I went out to the barnyard to gather the ewes up and saw what I thought was the start of a birth sac coming out of Coral. Put her in her lambing stall, but realized it was not a birth sac, it was what I assumed was the dreaded 'prolapsed vagina'. This can happen when a ewe is carrying an extra heavy load, and Coral was bigger than any ewe we've ever had, and much bigger than her last 2 seasons.

So I immediately did more internet research on prolapsed vagina. And I called the sheep vet to ask a phone opinion. He told me it was not an emergency at that point, as a ewe can lamb with one, and hers was not as severe as they can be.

I went out to check on her in a few hours, and within a very short time her condition had deteriorated. She was listless, head and neck down [stretched out in front of her, with her chin on ground]. Her expression was a dazed look, her eyes were dull, her ears expressionless. And she was grinding her teeth. She was off feed, which can be a normal sign of pending delivery, but I knew her condition wasn't right. Things happened fast, it was early evening, and we weren't sure what to do. I kept thinking it was related to her heavy load, and that she was in early stages of labor. By morning, she was totally listless, and had no energy to get up, or raise her head. We called the vet. Within two hours, we had her on a drip iv to give her energy, and doses of pain killers and vitamins. We harnessed her with a 'spoon' that holds the vagina in to make it more comfortable [the vet said the prolapse would go away after lambing, and hers was not severe]. They suspected 'ketosis' which happens in late stages of pregnancy, often with ewes carrying multiple lambs, and it's caused by lack of adequate minerals/vitamins/calories in her diet these last months. Then they induced labor. They told me we'd have to assist in the delivery, as she'd be too weak, and gave me all sorts of tips on feeling for the babies, and knowing what to do depending on how the babies were arranged in the womb. They also taught me how to tube a lamb, so the new born could get immediate sustenance since Coral might not have milk in her condition, and she would not be able to stand. We were to wait for the water to break in the next 24+ hours, and assist. And in the meantime we were injecting her with multiple shots and oral meds to try to keep her alive. By early evening, she was much stronger, and we checked her at midnight. I even slept in the stall with her for 3 hours Friday night in case her water broke. Martyn came out and found me on the stall floor, and said we were both sleeping, with Coral resting her head on my chest, so he left me there undisturbed. She was calm, and not in as much stress as earlier. By morning, she was alert, and drinking water, and much better, although still off feed, and still unable to get up. But we were hopeful.

The vet called Saturday and verified it was ketosis. So we also added 50cc's of a calcium supplement injected 1x a day. By Saturday night, and then Sunday morning, then Sunday afternoon, there was still no birth sac. She was slightly more dilated, but not much. I guess even when induced, this can happen. Finally, after midnight Sunday evening, her water broke.

I was really confidant, and calm. But a multitude of mistakes on my part led to tragedy. When the water breaks, most lambings proceed in 30 minutes to an hour. That has always been the case here too. The vet told me to reach in and feel for the positions of the babies, hoping it would be 2 front feet and a head coming out. If not, reach in, get your bearings in there, stay calm, and rearrange babies for normal birthing position. I found two feet, and a head. So I gave her about 15 minutes to see if she could progress at all. She was pushing, but I reached in again and began pulling, but I somehow lost track of the head. The 2 legs coming out were stuck at the shoulder line. We thought. But I could hardly get my hand back in to readjust, or find a head. I didn't panic, I'm pleased that's one thing I did right. But I got all the parts confused, and began thinking the two legs I had out were hind legs. I had asked the vet assistant what to do if it was hind end first, and she due to Coral's condition, pull it out by the legs. Our goal was always to get the babies out asap, to help Coral. So I kept pulling, and pulling. But the cervix wasn't big enough. And here is another key mistake I made, perhaps the worst mistake. We decided that she needed more time, that the books had all said, 'don't rush it' and that maybe her cervix needed time to dilate more. It was now 1:30 am, one hour after the water broke. Martyn decided to go lie down for 20 minutes, and stayed with Coral. She was clearly trying to push, so in about 10 minutes, I reached in again, determined. I took my time and really felt around the womb. I could feel toes, and a head. But I wrongly assumed the legs I was pulling did not belong to that head. I worked for 20 minutes trying to rearrange parts, and get the lamb's rear end [I thought] out, but it wasn't coming. It was now 2am, and I told Martyn we had to call a vet. I knew it would cost a fortune, but there was no choice. {The previous Thursday's ER visit came to $500].

It took him until 3 am to get to us. It had now been 2.5 hours since she broke water. The vet arrived, and had to work pretty hard to get the first lamb out. He pulled it out, no heartbeat. The next one came out easier, no heartbeat. One more came out, no heartbeat.

Three beautiful spotted little ewe lambs, all very large, which was part of the problem. The vet said, and this will haunt me for years, that if we had pulled them out sooner, they probably would have lived. He said my biggest mistake was thinking the front legs that first emerged were hind legs, when they in fact were front legs. He said it was a difficult position to adjust, and that I needed to get the lambs head in between the front legs. If they truly had been hind legs, they would have come out, but the head was stuck. If I had known, I could have had all three out in 30 minutes, most likely. We also had never been told "No matter what, they need to be out in 2 hours maximum from water breaking". All the books say, 'Give them up to 2 hours, and if "no progress' is being made, call a vet. I felt we were making progress, but it was not enough progress. I feel there was some communication glitch there to with me and the vet on Thursday, as they told me to give her up to an hour [assuming the positions of baby was normal when I first reached in] to try to push them out on her own. I only waited 15 minutes. But I still blew it.

Perhaps what's even harder to take, there is still a chance Coral won't make it. If she has a tear of any kind in her uterus [since two of us were prodding and poking], there won't be a recovery from that. She will simply never get up, and it will eventually kill her. He said if she is not up and walking in about 5 days, that will be a sign. We are to expect her to be downed though for the next 3-5 days while she regains her energy, now that she doesn't have lambs using her energy reserves.

To complicate things, Rosie also has ketosis, and most likely has triplets. She had triplets last year too. We treated her with the same meds as Coral, and she has recovered some, but the vet said I will need to assist her in delivery. And I'm terrified. But I'll do it, and I can only hope I will do better. She is due any day.

I thought I was on top of my feeding regime, and it's worked for 4 seasons. The mistake I made there, and I know I'm not the first, is that Coral was obviously carrying an extra large load, and I should have increased her feed regiment that I start 4 weeks before lambing. I should have given more than the usual ration.

I can not tell you how surreal it was to see those three lambs lined up on the bloody hay beside me. My only consolation is they died together, in the womb. I hold myself completely. It was 6 am and the sun was just rising. Pino stood up on the hill, watching Martyn as he buried the three lambs in the lower lavender field.


Juli said...

There really are no words when there are so many questions. I'm sorry for you pain but hope you'll find solace in your previous and future successes.

Eileen said...

Oh...how sad for everyone involved....the saddest part of all this is the miscommunication...it not only happens between vet and animal owner but between doctors and their patients....way too often....I hope everything goes well for the remaining lambing season...with your permission I'd like to send this story on to my niece who is in vet school....perhaps it could save some other lambs lives some day...

Unknown said...

My heart goes out to you. I can only imagine how hard this has to be on you.


Katherine Dunn/Apifera Farm said...

Thanks, Cat and Julie. And Eileen, you have my permission. For the record, I like all my vets, and don't blame them at all. ANd I am one of those people that asks A LOT of questions, and reads, and researches. I do think that to the person that has done this 10,000+ times, there are so many details that seem obvious, or so obvious at their experience level, they forget to state it. After it was all said and done, I was still sort of confused when I should have called it- as it takes a minimum of 1 hour for the vet to collect his stuff at office [if it's a night call] and get here. So many 'what if I'd done this, or that}

I think it would be cool if a vet clinic had a 3d model that a novice could practice on....

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to hear about this sad turn of events.

Your sensitivity is for the animals you shelter and care for is one of the very reasons I read your blog.

I really appreciate you sharing what must have difficult on so many levels.

Cathy said...

I'm so sorry, my dear. Of course you're blaming yourself, but please remember how much care and love you give all your animals. You did the best you could under very stressful circumstances, and you'll be better prepared for next time.

I'm sending good thoughts and prayers to Coral, and to you and Martyn as well. xoxo

Kathy said...

I am so sorry about your loss. I know you must be feeling so sad yourself. Thank you for sharing that story and I hope you have success with the other ewes lambing this season.

Claire MW said...

I am so sorry to hear of this Katherine, and I do know what you feel because I felt the same about those goats we lost at Christmas, and now about the angora loss for no apparent reason. You did all you thought was right and correct and it just wasn't meant to be. As you say, you have learned a lot, and that is a very good thing, because in future, you may need that knowledge and be able to put it to work in an emergency. I hope you can come to accept that this was not your fault - you did what you believed to be good and right, and that is all you can do. I send healing thoughts to Coral and hope she will recover. I send healing thoughts to you also. The resting place for the lambs is the most beautiful place that I can imagine - always surrounded by the scent of lavender and the busy activity of bees, the givers of life-sustaining sweetness and pollination. They know they are loved.

Pat said...

You are amazing. The fortitude it would take to stay in there for all you do. Good luck with the next set.

Anna said...

I'm sitting here wanting to say something, wishing I knew what that might be. I send you a blessing for the next birth~

Katherine Dunn/Apifera Farm said...

I really am helped from peple's thoughts and kindness, all of you. It's been a hard dday, but many things are being learned, and in time more insights will be had. I'm still holding out hope for Coral to recover in 5 days.

I received an email from one of my blog readers in Canada. It really was gracious, and I hope she doesn't mind me putting it here - thank you Jacquie: "I am so moved by the your story of your loss. I am so sorry this happenned. I believe in the end life and death are not science. Even the most experienced vet can't really know the right answer all of the time, some things are beyond answers that easily add up. I am sure that you will hear many opinions, some probably contradictory, even from the 'pros'. You seem like someone who would have done all that was possible to help and I'm sure that Coral knows this too.

In my experience, it is impossible be someone as caring as you seem to be, and go through something like this and not be weighed with self doubt. I think it is very brave of you to share this story. It has obviously moved many people. Your love for all of your family, two and four legged, is plain for all to see. Your beautiful 'eulogy' a testimony to that love."

it's in the details said...

dear loving catherine,

it is unfortunate that this is the first time i write, but i've been following your blog a while now.

i want to tell you why i follow your blog in hopes that it may bring you some solace in this very, very sad event. we've never met, yet i know very deep in my heart that you are one of the most loving, caring, nurturing and compassionate person in this world. following your day to day events, your insight and the love you bring to your animals is inspiring.

what happened is very sad and my heart goes out to you, but i want you to know that you did nothing wrong. this may not bring much comfort to a breaking heart, but i know that those lambs are in heaven.

i know that your Coral will recover soon and that this feeling will become a distant memory. please know that it will be better soon.

lars said...

I am so moved and saddened by your story. Last year we assisted with the lambing on a neighboring farm, and I was left alone one day to care for a downed ewe, who despite my best efforts (so familiar to your own story), did not recover. It's sadly humorous, but I can only imagine what I looked like doing CPR and mouth-to-nose on a full-sized suffolk ewe.

Due to feeding problems, our neighbor had six very sick lambs, all bums, who were given to me for NICU care. I lost five of them in a 24-hour period, in spite of my very best efforts and some very expensive vet bills. They, too, have a special place here on our farm and we say "hello" to them each time we pass that way.

Out of all of that tragedy, I did manage to save Forrest, my wonderful, sweet, loving whether, who has become my sheepy touchstone and the light of the farmyard. Like you, I learned so much out of a very, very bad situation...valuable, painful lessons, but I believe I am so much stronger for it, and that somehow my "reward" has been the love and affection of Forrest.

I am now known as the Bummer Lady by my sheep friends, and I only hope that this year my own six girls, and theirs, won't have any "bum" work for me.

I'm sending you and Coral and Rosie healing energy and am asking St. Francis to hold you up and give you some extra special attention.

Thank you for sharing your story.


Carla Sonheim said...

My heart breaks for you, Katherine. I am so sorry.

deedledumpling said...

Katherine, I am so sorry for your loss. Please don't blame yourself. Everyone who know you, knows that you did the best you could. That is all anyone can do. You help so many and love so completely I know this breaks your heart. But remember, life is full of lessons, some wonderful, some very difficult, but they all prepare us to keep living our lives to continue to do the very best we can do. My heart goes out to you all.

Terre Busse said...

I am so sorry you all lost those little ones. My heart is with you and your farm. I think it is amazing you did what you did for Coral and the ewes. Your farm animals are so blessed to have such a loving and caring person.

Katherine Dunn/Apifera Farm said...

The heartwarming thoughts from all of you are so appreciated- really, really. It is important to share feelings at these times, and lift people up a bit, so thank you.

And hearing others experiences above is very important to resolve one's own experiences. I've talked to some shepherd compadrés, including one in the Midwest who learned the same lesson of nutrition issues and lost 20+ ewes in one season - and she is a very caring, intelligent and worthy shepherd. SO hearing these cases helps. We have now moved into what I feel in my heart is basically hospice care, as today she has declined from yesterday a bit, but that could be pain issues and stress from the ordeal. I go out every two hours and care for her needs, and hold her head, and I know all her favorite spots on her face to rub. SO, I am preparing myself...but I am also looking around at the signs of hope all over the farm, and outside the farm too...

Katherine Dunn/Apifera Farm said...

My kind sister-in-law in Portland sent me this beautiful Robert Browning poem...

“Along the Road”

I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chattered all the way.
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things
I learned from her
When Sorrow
Walked with me!

-Robert Browning

Amy Schimler-Safford said...

Katherine, I was so sad for you reading this post. What a traumatic experience for you.. big city gal me can't really begin to know what you have just been through and am sending warm and healing thoughts to you with a simple message to be kind to yourself.

Blackfeatherfarm said...

I am such a blubbery baby when it comes to animals... crying now. But do know, that you did your best and I know how much you care about these blessed creatures. Learning sometimes comes at a price, I think we have all paid along the way, I know I have. There is no blame here, only lessons learned. For someone who cared so much and did the best they could, there is no guilt or shame or blame, only a sadness that the new lambs will ease one by one. Good thoughts and hope for Coral, sent your way.

Anonymous said...

I'm very sorry, Katherine. Someone in animal rescue once told me that the more animals you try to help, the more unfortunate incidents that occur. Everyone who is around many animals experiences some tragedies, sadly, and I'm sure we all feel responsible, on some level. You did the best you could and that's all anyone can do. I hope Coral makes a full recovery and that the rest of your lambing goes smoothly. I could never do what you do.

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Thank you for reading! The farm and my art/writing keep me hopping, so might not respond immediately. Thank you for understanding. ~Katherine & Apifera ~