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Under pressure. Or not. (part 1)

Under pressure. Or not. (part 1)

By Bill Stork, DVM

On May 15, 1992, I graduated from the University of Illinois – College of Veterinary Medicine. Seeking dairy cows, hills and freedom from Bears fans, I migrated across the Cheddar Curtain to take a job at the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic. Immediately I found myself navigating my way medically and geographically, all while adjusting to a new dialect. I learned that when one is thirsty, you search for the nearest “bubbler.” When your legs are tired, you sit on your “hinder.”

Dr. Bruce Brodie taught us how to replace the uterus in a cow who had recently calved. Little did I know we would be asked to attend fresh cows who had “tossed their calf beds,” or “cast their withers.” So, when I learned that all pigs shown at the Jefferson County Fair were required to test negative for a disease called pseudorabies, my volunteering hand went up like a 5th grader with the answer. Well into his sixties, Dr. Anderson was school-girl-giddy at the chance to delegate the job to the rookie.

For the Meat Animal Project, young boys and girls seeking ribbons and a chunk of college money at the Jefferson County Fair house their pigs on grandparents' and friends' farms. They use anything from a re-purposed milking parlor, to a dilapidated lean-to, and a knee-deep bog.

It has been said, “Never teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time, and annoys the pig.” Rest assured, they are even less thrilled at the notion of having blood drawn from their jugular vein. With all due respect to nurses charged with the responsibility of drawing blood from patients of all sizes, ages and attitudes, imagine, if you will, the pig. Weighing 250lbs or more, pigs have an extremely low center of gravity, all-wheel drive and not a vein showing anywhere on their body. They are exquisitely designed to withstand attack from any pack of predators. A greenhorn vet, his sidekick FFA instructor with a funny mustache, and a station wagon full of students would seem not to have a chance.

To draw a blood sample from pig, the pig must first stand still, which is not in their nature. A pig's version of human contact is taking small nibbles of your boots. Even when they have been hand raised, and taught to drive and stand on command, you’re going to need some equipment, which can range from baler twine to a 4’, retractable implement. After much trial and experience, I can speak with authority: the tool of choice is an 8” snare, consisting of a ¼” cable attached to a T-handle that runs through the long axis of a 3/8” L shaped pipe, then anchors to the short side to form a loop.

The morning arrived. Lyle Wallace creaked into the parking lot just before 7:00, his Ford wagon shimmying with FFA kids hopped up on Mountain Dew, bumper nearly dragging. With half a smile and a swagger, I hung my arm out the window, cranked the morning program, and followed to the first farm.

Whatever Mr. Wallace lacked in boots-on-the-ground experience, he doubled in energy and enthusiasm. An educator to the core, all the world was his classroom. In a flash he took the snare from my hand and hurdled the first gate, hell-bent on demonstrating proper technique to his students.

The goal is to slip the snare over the snout, behind their clipped canines. In doing so, they will immediately throw it into “4-low.” That’s when the catcher is engaged in a tug-o-war, and the phlebotomist slides in for the sample. Eventually Lyle would outlast our first patient, but not until he and the pig had lapped the pen a half dozen times, trashed his Levi’s and bloodied his lip.

Vets from James Herriot to Kuffel had used a 6” harpoon and a 12cc syringe. Once snared, they would kneel before the pig and pull the sample from the cranial vena cava, centimeters from the heart. A card-carrying graduate of the Dave Bane School of Porcine Phlebotomy, I chose a 1 1/2 inch needle, and a 7cc Vacutainer tube – identical to the rig used by nurses in hospitals. Once in the vein, you slide the rubber stopper over the opposite end of the needle, and the pressure created by the vacuum fills the tube with blood. Choosing not to show my cards, I had been part of the core research establishing prevalence of the very disease from which we were saving the Jefferson County Fair. As students we would take several day trips deep into central and southern Illinois, often bleeding 600-1200 pigs in a day.

A handful of students and two farmers leaned on the fence and spat. One Ag instructor grunted and panted on the handle, while the pig effortlessly tossed his head on the business end of the snare. I approached with all the confidence of someone who had conservatively bled 2000 pigs. Rotating my John Deere cap, I strode to the pig's right side. Kneeling, I gently placed my left fingertips in her thoracic inlet and slipped the needle squarely into her jugular vein, expecting a 20-gauge gusher.

Nothing happened.

To be continued...

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