On call and a-callin’

On call and a-callin’

By: Brian Stauffer

(Originally published in The News-Gazette, February 28, 1999)

Author’s Note:

Working on this story, I gained an appreciation for just how incredible the work that those writers who do this professionally — especially in book form, such as Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, and John McPhee — is. Their attention to detail, and their ability to weave that detail into cohesive stories amazed [me then] and continues to amaze me. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to take Prof. Harrington’s class and experience on a very small scale the challenges and rewards these writers must face daily

– Brian Stauffer

Jim Meyer slips his black rubber boots over his brown street shoes
and zips up his blue coveralls, which have a DVM … Doctor of Veterinary
Medicine … insignia stitched in white over the left breast pocket. Small
snowflakes zip in front of his face, propelled by a bitter northwest wind.
He grimaces against the zero-degree wind chill. It’s 8:30 Friday morning,
and “Doc” Meyer is making his first farm call of the day.

Few places are as lonely as an Illinois farm in winter. Outposts
against the unrelenting prairie wind, the homes, barns, sheds and grain
bins are the only signs of civilization for miles amid the fallow land. In
the deep of winter, these farmsteads look abandoned. But even on the
coldest days, farm life … and those who watch over it … goes on.

Carrying a two-compartment plastic bucket … one section filled with
water, the other with medical items he might need … Meyer, 65 years old,
crosses the gravel driveway under an overcast sky to the white barn.
Despite his age and the weather, he has an energy and determination many
men years younger could envy. He heads toward a sliding door that’s
cracked open a few feet.

“You want to leave the door open for some light?” asks the barn’s
owner, Bill Loy, who is inside. Bill is a stout man who wears a cap,
coveralls and a work jacket. He moves in measured steps, the result of 50
years of driving trucks, baling hay and working cattle. His face is red,
blistered by the cold wind. His daughter wants him to retire, but he just
can’t.

“I may quit the hay,” he says, “but as far as cattle, I can still
drive the car and buy cattle and sell them. The old truck may wear out.
See, it’s a ’74 and it’s got 240,000 miles on it. Me and it will wear out
at about the same time.”

Meyer leaves the door open and walks into the dark barn. Beside Loy,
he looks thin and spry, still able to react quickly if a cow sends a hind
leg his way. His brown winter hat that says “Scourgard 3” is the shape of
a baseball cap, but with earflaps. The orange bill is bent out of shape,
as if it’s been crumpled up in a pocket.

Underneath the hat, his hair alternates between black and gray. Along
the barn’s far wall are two Angus cows that can barely be seen except for
the glint of their eyes when the light from the open door catches them. A
train’s horn blows nearby, and the bird dogs tied up in the barn bark at
the noise. Manure and hay mix to produce a pleasant earthy aroma.

Meyer’s task this morning is to “pregnant test” the two cows. One at
a time, the cows will be driven into a narrow chute that will protect
Meyer and make it easier on the cow. Bill, a cattle trader for 52 years,
reminisces about the old days when the cows would be lassoed and tied to a
post, free to move around. In those days, a blood sample would be taken
from the neck and, if the cow was excitable, that could turn into a blood
bath, with the veterinarian trying to find a vein and the cow flailing,
trying to avoid the needle.

“Yep,” says Bill, “a lot of water has gone under the bridge since
then, Jim.”

“And some of the bridges aren’t there anymore,” Meyer adds.

Meyer should know. He’s been traveling the roads around Gibson City
for the past 40 years. A University of Illinois College of Veterinary
Medicine graduate, he’s been a practicing veterinarian in the Gibson City
area since 1957, the year he earned his degree.

In the four decades since he started, he has seen plenty of changes
… in agriculture, veterinary medicine and in his own life. But unlike
some who become overly nostalgic about the past, Meyer appreciates most of
the changes. They’ve made it easier for him to practice, but they have
also diminished his clientele by bringing a decrease in local livestock.
Growing up on a small farm in Mason County, he loves farm life. But he
knows change is inevitable.

“To me, life has never been so nice,” Meyer says. “The good ol’ days
… like my dad used to say ground. The first item of business is to take
a blood sample.

Peering through his glasses in the dim light, Meyer raises her tail
with his left hand, and with his right hand sticks a 10cc syringe into the
tail’s base just above the anus. In a well-practiced maneuver, he quickly
draws out 5cc of blood, which he’ll use to test for brucellosis, a disease
that can cause cows to abort their calves. Once he has the sample, he
places it in his bucket.

Next comes the pregnancy test. From the bucket, Meyer draws out a
long, apple-green plastic glove, which stretches over his left arm. He
splashes water from the bucket on the glove and from his back pocket takes
out a plastic bottle of Luboseptic lubricant, which he rubs all over the
glove. He raises the cow’s tail and, with a slight hesitation, dives into
the rectum.

The glove covers his arm past his elbow, and he needs every inch of
it. The cow tenses a little, but doesn’t struggle. The technique might
seem outdated, with the advent of ultrasound technology. But ultrasound is
an expensive piece of equipment to be hauling around to farms. For a lot
less money, an experienced vet can tell a cow owner what he needs to know:
whether a cow is pregnant.

Meyer first removes the fecal matter that blocks his way. That done,
he feels for the cervix, then the horn of the uterus (cows have a
different configuration than humans), which he checks for fluid and
membrane. Once a fetus is about the size of a mouse, a vet can detect it
and pretty well guess its age. With practice, some vets can detect a fetus
at only 30 days old. But Meyer figures his limit at about 45 days. This
day, he finds a fetus.

“About 75 days bred, Bill.”

The cow is released and, with some difficulty, the second cow is
driven into the stock. Meyer repeats the procedure.

“She’s bred two days before the other one.”

“Was she?” Bill says, incredulous.

“Maybe a week,” Meyer says seriously, his eyes twinkling at his
feigned attempt at precision. He’s good, but not that good.

Meyer rolls off the glove and tosses it by the other glove to be
thrown out. This procedure has changed little since Meyer’s days as a vet
student, the only difference being that washable rubber gloves were
standard then. Although inconvenient, they actually provided a better feel
for the vet. But the old gloves were a marked improvement over the
bare-arming of generations past.

Without protection, many doctors in the ’30s and ’40s contracted
brucellosis or what is commonly called undulant fever in humans. Those
vets could go months, even half a year fighting the disease. Those
infected would wake up in the middle of the night sweating with fever.
They would be fine for up and down. Some died, while others fought the
disease for years. Today’s vet has a better chance with antibiotics, but
brucellosis is still an illness to be avoided.

The second cow is released from the stock. She hesitates, then starts
to back up toward Meyer. He gives her a slap on the rump.

“C’mon girl.”

“Yep,” Bill says, “if we had a dollar for every cow that’s had it’s
head in that chute, well, we wouldn’t have to work. Either one of us.”

“One time we did (have several dollars),” Meyer says. “Don’t know
where it went.”

“I don’t know, either. I tell you, things have got so high, you just
don’t make enough money to keep up with it.”

The work done, Meyer heads to his truck under the gun-metal sky.
Using a yellow-bristled scrub brush, he washes off his boots with cold
water from a special vet unit that fills the bed of his emerald green and
silver Ram 1500 pickup and washes his hands with warm water. Going from
animal to animal as he does, he must be careful not to carry one farm’s
diseases to another.

As he pulls out of the Loy place, a light snow begins to fall.

… 9:50 a.m., Mike Lange’s place:

After a couple of cups of coffee at the Sunrise Cafe in Gibson City,
Meyer heads to Mike Lange’s farm, a couple of miles northwest of town.

Lange makes his living as an insurance salesman, but he likes to
dabble with livestock. Today, he has three cows he wants Meyer to test for
pregnancy.

The sun has come out, but it’s still cold. Meyer puts on his boots
again. He took them off before entering the cafe in consideration of the
customers.

Lange is a big man, at least 6 feet or more, and he’s wearing faded
Carhart coveralls and a cap. There is no cattle chute to immobilize the
cows. Lange plans to lead them in by a halter and put them in his red
cattle trailer, so they can’t move around much.

Lange leads two of them in from the feed bunk where his Shorthorn
cattle stand munching on hay. He ties one to each side of the trailer.
They complain little.

“I think we’re all right,” Meyer says as he moves in with his left
hand, gloved as before.

“It ain’t like we haven’t done this before,” Lange says.

“OK, let’s see. When was she bred?”

“Well, I put the bull in the first of August.”

“September, October. . . . That’s four months.”

“She’s a hard breeder.” Lange pauses in thought. “OK, I took the bull
out late in September, I guess. She’s got six months to go before she
calves. So she’ll calve out about the first of June.”

Turns out both cows are bred. Lange leads one of the cows out and
replaces it with another.

“Remember this one, Doc? This is the one we cranked out backward last
spring,” Lange says, referring to an earlier farm call where Meyer helped
deliver a calf.

“I should say,” Meyer says. “I never forget a rear end.”

Meyer can’t remember the number of pregnancy tests he’s done, or the
number of animals he’s helped deliver. With all the animals he’s worked
with, he has to remind himself not to get too overconfident.

Although he may be doing a pregnancy test the ten-thousandth time,
for the cow it may be only her first or second. If he’s not careful, she
may get “goofy” and throw a hind leg in his direction. It has happened
before, but, fortunately for Meyer, he has suffered little more than
chipped teeth and bent glasses. At the end of October, he almost lost his
current pair that way. So he tries to treat each pregnancy test with the
care he used in performing his first.

All Lange’s cows are bred. Meyer washes off his boots and his hands
and heads for his truck.

“Well, we’re on the road. See you, Mike.”

… 10.15 a.m., on the road again:

“Car 21 to the office,” Meyer calls in over his FM medical emergency
band. With his eyes on the road and his left hand on the steering wheel,
he holds the mike in his right hand, waiting for a response.

“This is the office,” answers Rose Street, Meyer’s office worker.

“Anything else for the county?”

“Nothing new.”

“I’m going up to look at that Schlickman horse.”

This is the best part of the day for Meyer, making farm calls. During
an average year, he puts about 20,000 miles on his truck.

His range covers a good chunk of central Illinois, from Paxton to
Dawson Lake, Seymour to Strawn.

Meyer’s willingness to work with horses increases his range a bit
farther. Some vets in nearby clinics would rather not deal with them. A
lot of miles, but that’s down from the 30,000 miles he used to put on when
there were more small farms with livestock. Forty years ago, each farm had
at least a few animals. Many of the farms had six to 12 cows and eight to
12 sows fed with corn produced on the farms. Now, it’s much rarer to see
cattle.

As Meyer says, it’s easier for a farmer to watch the markets on his
computer and sell his corn at the right time than it is to feed it to
livestock. Raising hogs has changed, too. What 20 hog farmers could raise
in the ’50s, two can raise now. Some of this increase has come from
improved veterinary medicine in controlling diseases, which has allowed
hogs to be raised in higher concentrations.

Meyer owns the Gibson Veterinary Clinic and employs two other vets to
help him. Being the owner and the most experienced vet, he gets to choose
what he wants to do. So he ends up doing two-thirds of the farm calls. It
gets him out of the office and gives him a chance to jaw a little with his
customers, more than he would if he were cooped up in the clinic.

“Office to 21,” his radio squalls.

“Twenty-one, go ahead,” Meyer answers.

“Hi, Doctor Meyer,” says Rose. “Doctor Slagel was wanting to know if
there was some sort of treatment she was supposed to do on the Sullivan
puppies?”

“Mostly have to stay on antibiotics, and, actually, I think they can
go home.”

“OK. I’ll let her know.”

“OK.”

Suzanne Slagel is Meyer’s most recent hire and is working at the
clinic this morning. The other vet, Sharon Welch, was hired a year before,
when Meyer’s previous vet moved away to study human medicine.

When Meyer was in school … class of ’57 … his was the second
class in the UI vet college to include women: two in a starting class of
40. The class of 2000 has two men for every eight women. Plus, the
majority of vet students these days want to work on house pets, not farm
animals or in a mixed practice such as Meyer’s. Much of this change grows
from the drop in smaller farms with livestock and an increase in vet
school applicants from cities.

Meyer hangs the mike back on the radio. The sun has disappeared, and
wisps of blowing snow snake across the road in front of the truck as Meyer
passes by acres of barren fields.

… 10:32 a.m., the Schlickmans’:

Meyer pulls into the Schlickman place, an old farmstead. He parks
close to the barn, gets out and pulls his boots on again. It’s cold enough
for him to see his breath, but the wind whisks it away before it can form
a cloud. The barn door is hard to open, and the wind doesn’t help.

It’s so cold that the wind seems to come straight out of Canada.
Meyer gropes in the dark to find a light switch. A rooster crows inside
the barn. With the lights on, the barn looks like Noah’s ark with ponies,
cats and chickens. A radio plays to keep the animals company. It’s tuned
to WGCY, the Gibson City FM station.

At the far end of the barn, a 7-year-old dun mare stands alone in a
pen underneath a bare light bulb that descends by a cord from the
two-story barn’s rafters. Sheets of cobwebs hang from the walls, billowing
like torn sails in the drafty barn. Meyer quiet voice he speaks to her.

“What do you think, mare?”

In his hand he has a black Mag Lite flashlight. He approaches slowly,
avoiding direct eye contact, which can spook a horse. Normally, he
wouldn’t work on a horse without its owner. The last thing he wants is to
end up getting kicked and spending the rest of the day in a horse stall
waiting for help. But this mare has proved easy to work with since he
removed her right eye 10 days ago.

With the help of Dr. Slagel, Meyer put the horse under general
anesthetic on the grass outside the barn, with a corn crib to block the
northwest wind. The surgery went off without a hitch.

Now she stands quietly while Meyer inspects her. A “twitch” has been
placed over her nose. It’s a clamp that old-timers thought distracted
horses from pain. Actually, the pressure the twitch delivers causes the
animal’s body to release endorphins in the brain that act as natural pain
relievers.

“We think we can cure everything, but we actually don’t cure
anything,” Meyer says. “All we do is help nature, help the animal get the
upper hand a little bit. She had an eye injury. The eye looked like
hamburger.” Meyer moves to the mare’s left side and takes a close look at
the eye, sewn shut with red stitches. “I think we’ll take those stitches
out.”

He heads out to the truck and returns with a knife. Slowly, he begins
to undo his handiwork. He must look up to see the stitches because the
mare’s chin comes almost to his shoulder. Working outward from the side of
the eye nearest the nose, Meyer delicately begins to pull the threads. The
horse twitches and pulls her head away.

“I won’t hurt you,” Meyer says.

He begins again, and, this time, she reacts a little more, taking a
small step to her side. Without an eye, feeling pain around her face, it’s
a wonder she isn’t jumpier.

“I know you’re a nice gal, but you better not stretch your
imagination.” Meyer goes back to work. The mare twitches once again. “Just
take it easy.” Finally, he finishes. “Doesn’t that feel good? That a
girl.” Meyer strokes her neck, pats it. The mare shakes her head a little
when Meyer removes his hands, but otherwise she doesn’t seem to notice the
difference.

“Looking pretty good,” Meyer says.

After finishing with the stitches, he undoes the twitch on her nose.
He pats the mare again and closes the gate to her stall. He turns out the
lights, closes the door, and once again washes his boots.

… 3 p.m., Gibson City:

Meyer’s home is also in Gibson City, population 3,600, where Meyer
and his wife, Anita, raised three children. A son is an environmental
engineer in California and a daughter is a nurse-anesthetist in Chicago.
Their eldest daughter died when hit by a car two years ago in Champaign, a
tragedy so painful Meyer still can’t talk about it.

He eats a quick lunch of microwaved leftovers today and hits the road
again. He believes there are two items invented specifically for vets:
microwaves and electric blankets.

With his erratic schedule, he misses plenty of meals, so the
microwave is a godsend. And on those late winter nights when a farmer
calls needing help, it always feels good to crawl back into a bed that’s
been kept warm with an electric blanket.

Since lunch, Meyer has already been to the clinic and gone out on
another farm call to test a paint horse for pregnancy and to check another
for a rupture. Now he’s on his way back to the Sunrise Cafe for a
midafternoon coffee break. In the parking lot, Meyer gets out of the cab
and peels off his coveralls and boots.

“I spend half my life on one leg,” he says.

“Hey, Doc,” says a man leaving the restaurant.

Meyer returns the greeting. The crowd in the Sunrise is a little
sparser than in the morning. A group of eight men, most of them with gray
hair, crowd around a circular table not far from the cash register. No
seats there. So Meyer heads to the next table, where two other men sit. He
settles in and within a minute, a cup of coffee appears in front of him.
No need to order. And rarely does a customer finish one of the 70-cent
cups of coffee before it has been topped off with a free refill.

When Meyer arrived in Gibson City, he didn’t know how long he would
stay. But he took a liking to the place and put down roots. He’s been
there long enough to see the local drive-in theater, The Harvest Moon, go
out of business and then open up again and expand to two screens. He has
seen the local high school consolidated with another school and a golf
course opened on the north edge of town.

Eventually, he bought into the clinic 50-50 with Eldon Kline. Old Doc
Kline started the practice in 1945, working out of his home. At the time,
it was unusual for rural vets to have a clinic. The local bank would agree
to a loan only if the building could be converted easily into a house if
it was repossessed. No danger of that now. Meyer bought out Kline when
Kline retired in 1988.

In high school, Meyer thought he would become a farmer like his
father, but a teacher encouraged him to attend college. Once there, he
still planned to go back home and farm until his second semester, when he
visited the vet college. He was sold. He would still be on farms, but he
could use his education, too.

“It was a good decision,” he says. “If I had anything to do for free,
it would be this.”

At the end of his second year of vet school, he skipped graduation to
marry Anita. At the time, it took six years of college to get a bachelor’s
and a vet degree. Now, it normally takes eight years.

Anita, also a University of Illinois student, wanted to be a
psychiatrist. “That was back in the days when women were supposed to be
subservient,” Meyer says. “She was going to practice in the big city, and
I said there was no way I was going to live in the big city.” Somehow,
Meyer persuaded her to stay with him in the country.

“Instead of her changing people’s minds, I guess I changed hers.”

… 4:25 p.m., back at the clinic:

A friend of Meyer’s, Danny McGuire, is sitting in the clinic waiting
room with his German wire-hair, Jake. The waiting room is dim. The
daylight outside has all but disappeared. Jake is a typical bird dog, full
of energy and alert to his surroundings.

Meyer comes in and begins to chat with McGuire. Inevitably, the
conversation turns to another passion of Meyer’s … hunting. McGuire asks
Meyer whether he’s been out lately.

“Went out Wednesday, and all we got was wet,” Meyer answers. “Last
weekend, I think I went. . . . No, I was a good guy. I went Christmas
shopping with my wife.”

“Working tomorrow?”

“Yeah. I got to work this week.”

“All weekend?”

“Yeah. I’ll work tomorrow, and I’ll be on call Sunday. C’mon Jake,
let’s take a look at that leg.”

Jake, McGuire and Meyer head to one of the clinic’s two examination
rooms. The clinic also has a surgery room, as well as two kennels and an
office for Meyer in the back. Jake jumps up with some difficulty onto the
exam table, his claws scratching at the stainless-steel surface.

McGuire holds him while Meyer takes a look at the sores. “I think
he’s just been pestering this to death.” While Meyer makes conversation
with McGuire, he quickly examines the dog. He had already seen Jake’s body
language in the waiting room, saw him walking without a limp.

“A lot of it is observation,” he says. “You have to let them talk to
you. People will tell you stories. But, at least, animals don’t tell you
the wrong things. You have to interpret what you see.”

Meyer diagnoses the problem as a granuloma, a condition where the skin reacts to constant irritation, causing a tumorlike growth.
Meyer shoots a steroid into each sore, one on the front right leg and
another on the back left. The steroid should reduce the irritation.

Meyer also gives McGuire an antibiotic to apply in the evenings, when
Jake is less likely to mess with it. Within two weeks, they should know
whether the sores are healing. The doctoring finished, the two hunters
make tentative plans.

“Well, if you get a free weekend, give me a ring,” McGuire says as he
heads for the door with Jake.

“Not this weekend, but next weekend I’m free,” Meyer says. “We’ll
think of someplace to go. Maybe south.”

… 5:15 p.m., closing time:

The last visitor of the day leaves, and the door closes behind him
with a “da-ding.” Meyer puts away the final items from a supply shipment
that arrived earlier in the day. Outside, the full darkness of a prairie
winter swallows Gibson City’s lights as they meekly reach out into the
snow-covered cornfield across the highway from the clinic.

A light snow dances in front of the headlights passing on Route 54.
Like so many evenings before, the clinic will close at 5:30. But no need
to worry. Doc Meyer is on call tonight.

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