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OSU Veterinary Hospital releases premature, miracle calf

Friday, December 23, 2005

A calf born two months premature spent months in the care of veterinarians at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences before being returned to its owners this week.

The calf’s release Tuesday from the Boren Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital concludes a miraculous medical case and a unique learning experience for more than 50 students.

Affectionately nicknamed “Norman,” the purebred Hereford calf owned by Poteau cattleman Monte Shockley Jr. was admitted to the teaching hospital on Sept. 1. One day old and not due to be born until Oct. 30, the calf weighed just 26 pounds and was hairless except on its head and lower legs.

“To have much of a chance to survive, a calf should be born within two weeks of its due date, and he was born two months early,” said Dr. John Gilliam, Food Animal Medicine resident at the hospital’s Large Animal Clinic. “He was bright and aware of his surroundings but was unable to stand.

“Amazingly, he would nurse from a bottle, and his owners had been feeding him colostrum from his mother."

With round-the-clock care for the first 30 days and additional subsequent treatments, the teaching hospital doctors, technical staff and students were able to stave off numerous ailments that should have done in the calf. Initially, Norman was quarantined and administered intravenous fluids and antibiotics, nasal oxygen therapy and a blood transfusion from one of the hospital’s donor cows. The performance of the calf’s underdeveloped lungs was monitored by checking oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in its blood.

“The two biggest threats to his life were the risk of infection and the fact his lungs were so immature,” Gilliam said. “The risk of infection was managed by providing the transfusion and antibiotics and keeping him isolated from other animals in the hospital.

“The only treatment we had for his lungs was supplemental oxygen, but we were able to monitor his pulmonary function several times daily using an arterial blood gas analysis."

It was so small that it had to be fed from a bottle for baby lambs, and the calf stopped nursing after a few days. The veterinarians attributed its inability to nurse to stomach ulcers and the onset of pneumonia and treated both afflictions by switching to intravenous feeding.

When it returned to nursing, the calf developed scours and a persistently low white blood cell count. With time and modifications to his treatments, both conditions and Norman’s underdeveloped coat and skeleton improved.

“His skin became crusty and dry, so we applied a moisturizing spray several times daily until his hair coat grew in,” Gilliam said. “We initially made a sling to support him so that he could stand while he nursed, but he had to be confined because the bones in his joints were very immature and might have been crushed if he walked too much.

“We radiographed his joints every other week to see how the bones were maturing, and after about ten weeks, it was safe for him to be active."

Eventually, Norman was penned with a nurse cow and began eating hay and grain. When released to Shockley this week, 15 weeks after entering the hospital, the healthy and active calf weighed more than 90 pounds.

“Every day, Dr. Gilliam would call and tell us how things were going, and it was up and down for a long time,” Shockley said. We never expected this calf to make it, so we’re very pleased with how he’s turned out.”

Shockley said he had little reason to be hopeful about the calf’s prospects, from discovering Norman to the initial diagnosis by his local veterinarian, Dr. Joe Dubois, an OSU College of Veterinary Medicine alumnus who, incidentally, was a classmate of Gilliam’s.

“I was walking the dog in the pasture and came across this lifeless, small animal with no hair, and it was a baby calf,” Shockley said. My local veterinarian came out, and he didn’t have any hope for it, but he knew Dr. Gilliam at OSU and recommended we call him.

“Dr. Gilliam sounded doubtful on the phone, but we took a chance and brought the calf and the mother up here. Dr. Gilliam said it would be hit-and-miss, but the calf got a little better every day. We didn’t expect him to live, but we thought we’d give it a try.”

Gilliam said Shockley’s commitment to saving the calf made for an extremely rare opportunity for more than 50 veterinary medicine students to learn about neonatal care. Typically, such intensive care for a food animal is cost-prohibitive.

“To treat Norman, we had to borrow equipment normally used in the care of patients in the equine and small animal clinics of the teaching hospital,” Gilliam said. “Combined efforts throughout the teaching hospital of several doctors, many students, and our technical staff made this case successful, but only because of the investment and commitment of the owner were we able to do it.

“We’re grateful to the owner because this was an outstanding opportunity for upwards of 50 students on rotations, and maybe more, to learn how to evaluate blood work and radiographs and make decisions about changing medications and therapies on a daily basis to adjust to an animal’s changing conditions. And more importantly, we’ve learned from this case that it’s possible for a calf to be born this prematurely and survive.”

Norman’s addition to the annals of veterinary medical journals remains to be seen, but the calf is already famous.

“Everybody in town we know is dying to see him,” Shockley said. “We’ll continue to keep him tame and break him to lead, and he’s out of a great sire, so he may even become a show animal someday.”

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