Making a Choice:
There is one thing in life that I highly value and that is a caring heart.
The following story is one of love, kindness, compassion, empathy, opportunity and hope. It is also is a story of tragedy, illness, hard work, worry, death, and grieving. I have made a promise to myself and to anyone who reads my stories, that they will be real and contain both the good and the bad.
Let’s look back, five and half weeks to the middle of December. Ben comes home from helping a family friend of ours with their herd of sheep. He brings with him a proposition. Our friends have a Ewe, that has been confirmed pregnant with twins by an ultrasound, who cannot stand or walk anymore. She is not due to have the babies for at least another month. Sometimes farm life is riddled with hard choices and the Ewe and her unborn babies would have normally been euthanized. Instead they offered her to my husband to try and care for her until the babies arrived and then keep the babies as bottle babies if they made it. He and my son, who both love sheep, quickly declined. They did not want the extra burden of caring for a lame ewe. She would require a lot of extra daily care with no guarantee of a positive outcome. Ben approached me about the issue and I was on the fence about whether the risks outweighed the opportunities. He proposed the idea to our daughter Carrie. She was not hasty in her decision, and we talked over the pro’s and con’s of her daily care, bottle feeding, and ultimately euthanizing the ewe once the babies arrived. Her and I agreed that we would work as a team and take on the challenge. We like to root for the underdog and love a good success story as much as the next guy.
Carrie and I took the trailer to go an collect her from our friends farm. When you tried to stand the ewe up, her back right leg would swing sideways underneath her body, across to the left side of her body. She must have suffered from a hip, leg, or spinal injury to cause the sudden lameness. We carefully loaded her into the trailer and brought her to our farm. We got her home and settled into her own private suite in the barn. She fit right in and her personality really started to shine. She loved being pet and she was able to use her front legs to skootch around and get to her food an water dishes. My daughter put in the effort to keep her bedding extra clean as she was always laying down. When a cold snap would come through, Carrie would cover her with a blanket to ensure she had a little something extra since she could move much to keep warm. This was the routine for the first 3-ish weeks.
Once she started to become heavily pregnant, moving around was becoming an obvious chore. Though she was still able to hold her chest and head upright, Carrie started to feed and water her close to her face, making sure she could easily reach. It took several people to roll or shift the ewe due to her size and lack of being able to help lift herself. We tried to do this on a regular basis to keep the babies moving around, and to help with the ewes digestion, soreness, and hygiene. This continued for about a week when we noticed she just seemed to be a little less than enthusiastic about anything. Our shepherd senses were tingling- and we knew something was going on.
Everyone worked as a team and rolled her onto her side, opposite the injured leg. While trying to wipe some dirt off of her leg hair, we discovered a large infected area that had been hiding under her wool. Carrie jumped into action and sprayed the infected area down with antiseptic spray. She then came up with a game plan for cleaning the wound, and I came up with a treatment plan for the medications she would receive. Carrie treated and bandaged her leg but the stress and toll the hidden infection had already taken was becoming more apparent. This poor ewe was very uncomfortable, seemingly with labor signs, and she was becoming less able to hold her head up on her own. She was now solely on her side, she refused to hold her chest and head upright no matter how we positioned her legs, or propped her side up. To say we were worried is an understatement. I started her on an antibiotic and a low dose steroid to help bolster her and help push the development of the babies lungs. Within 12 hours she started to perk back up! She was holding her head up again to eat and drink. She still seemed to be pretty uncomfortable and still had sign of labor.
Carrie and I made a trip to town to gather all of the lambing gear and supplies we could need. It is always a good idea to have a lambing/kidding bag handy. Just like the hospital bag new parents pack. It has things like towels, nasal aspirators, supplements, and gloves. I’ll have to do a whole other post about prepping for lambing/kidding season.
We called the vet to make sure he was already in the loop incase things started to go bad quickly and to see if he has any other ideas. If she goes into labor, we don’t think she will have the strength to deliver the babies. So a tentative plan for a caesarean was made. The next day, Sunday, she didn’t improve anymore and actually started to slip back downhill. Monday brought worse news.
This poor gal wouldn’t even eat food you put right in front of her mouth. When offered a special electrolyte water she would drink close to a half gallon every time. When I gave her the water, I had to tip the dish and pour slowly as she drank because she wouldn’t hold her head upright and was drinking laying sideways. Imagine laying down on your side with mouth and one nostril in the bowl while you try to suck up the water. I was worried.
The change in food and water consumption can be a sign of 2 things- labor has started, or she is dying. This is standard behavior for either.
We knew this was going to be it. Her body was giving up, and we were out of options for continuing to care for this sweet girl. We called the Vet back and confirmed a cesarean would be needed for her at the end of the day. We all know how this can go- it can go really good and end up with live lambs, or it can go really bad and end up with dead lambs. The ewe would be euthanized humanely by the vet once the procedure was complete. This had been the known outcome for her since she arrived at our farm. It gave our hearts a little time to love her more and be prepared for the end of her journey at the same time.
Several of our friends that also have sheep, including the friends we got her from came over to witness such a unique procedure. This is not a common occurrence and honestly the more hands on deck the better. Bedsides, the more we all experience and learn, the more prepared and educated we all will be in the future to offer the best care to our herds.
The vet got to the house and had all of his supplies. He listened, and looked, and poked, and made sure this was the best option we had at this point. He was pleasantly surprised she didn’t have pneumonia by now and confirmed the injury and showed us that the ewe had no feeling left in that hind leg. He prepped her for the procedure with a quick trim of her wool and and injected numbing medication into the incision area. Have you ever had lidocaine injected to reset a bone, or to get stitches? That stuff burns like the dickens! This ewe didn’t flinch when he stuck her with the needle and didn’t even react to the burning sensation of the anesthetic. We knew in this moment, she was actually worse off than we thought.
The first baby is pulled out and handed to me. I start with clearing the nose and face, and wiping as much as I can to stimulate breathing and suctioning all the fluids with the nasal aspirator. This little guy let out one little cry, so I kept wiping and rubbing to stimulate him to keep on breathing. Now the second baby has arrived and is handed to our other friend who is repeating the same rubbing, wiping, suctioning- all while hoping for a little effort from the baby. Then surprise, a third baby, ITS TRIPLETS! My daughter takes the last one and repeats the same measures. We are all praying, begging, and hoping one of them would at least try to breath on its own.
There are several methods we use to try and get babies to breath. Rubbing, suctioning, a piece of straw up the nose, a drop or two of whiskey on their tongue, and the vet even had a medication to inject under their tongue.
Nothing was working. While we all worked on them for every bit of 15 minutes with no progress, their heartbeats slowly faded, one by one. During the frantic mess of trying to save the lambs the vet had already assisted the sweet momma to a place of no more pain.
Standing in the barn- a dead ewe and her 3 dead lambs next to her. All surrounded by used gloves, towels, nose suckers, low faced friends, completed with a sense of utter failure. It’s a horrid sight, really. I wouldn’t wish it on any farmer. A few soft and polite, “I’m sorry” and “thank you’s” were exchanged.
One by one, the vet and all of our friends left. The only people left in the barn was my daughter and I. Everyone was still in shock. I looked at the lambs, and then at her, and I can’t even tell you if I said anything- but she looked at me and she lost it. She had held it all in and the walls finally came down. All of the emotions came flowing out. All you can do as a parent is cry with them and hug them tight. I know I can’t say anything that will make the pain go away, but I can use this as an opportunity to help grow their faith, to grow their coping skills, and to show my love and support for them.
This ewe was our project. Now, we had nothing to show for it. That can leave the toughest of farmers with a lot of self doubt. That is when the “what-if’s” always show up, and they can get out of hand really quickly if you allow them.
“What-If we waited 2 days?” “What if she would have had them naturally?” “What if we shifted her more/less?” “What if we gave more/less medications?”
I told her “That when the ‘what-if’s’ get too loud and you start to beat yourself up about it- you HAVE to tell me. And I promise I will come to you if it happens to me.” We both nodded our tear steaked faces, touched foreheads, and left the barn.
I had some time to ponder while cleaning up the barn with Ben & Matthew. What would be something we can take away from this that is a ‘silver lining’ – not necessarily to make us feel better or to lighten the raw sting of emotions we were experiencing, but something to validate those feelings and to mediate on as we continue to grow as farmers. Then as I was walking in, sloughing off the layers of winter clothes, tucking away mucky boots, and washing up, I realized…..
….it only hurt so badly for ONE reason.
When I went to check in on Carrie before bed, I told her what I had come to realize:
“I would rather us be heartbroken farmers, than to be heartless and not care about our animals at all.”
This sadness, grief, and doubt will all subside with time. But let it be a testament to the affection, care, and humility we show on our farm. We are emotionally involved and conscious minded in all that we do here.
Because we do care an awful lot, sometimes it hurts an awful lot too.
I do not ever want to be a cold and heartless farmer.