The value is what is learned


by Constance Breese

Elizabeth Whelan

In my line of work, the use of the word harvest applies to gathering tissue samples. For example, we say, “A kidney is harvested by doctors for transplant.” For some of my cases the harvest comes after the death of an animal in the search for what caused its demise. A necropsy can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Enzo—a young, beefy, part Chianina steer—suddenly took ill. His back was abnormally arched and he was suddenly off his feed. He grunted and groaned as I examined him inside and out. His body language made me think “back injury,” but on internal exam his digestive system was telling me otherwise. I came to suspect hardware disease after ruling out a few other possibilities.

Hardware disease (traumatic reticuloperitonitis) is a condition particular to cattle due to their indiscriminate browsing and grazing. They do not have upper front teeth, so they pull into their mouths what they eat and don’t chew much. Grass and hay enter the first stomach and are brought back up a second time for a second chew (“chewing the cud”). Pieces of wire, a stray nail or the like can sometimes be ingested by cows during feeding or grazing. These metal pieces are too heavy to be brought back up through the esophagus. Instead they usually settle somewhere in the bottom of the reticulum. The reticulum sorts food for rechewing or sends it further down the digestive tract. The only practical treatment for a cow with a case of hardware disease is to put a three inch capsule-shaped magnet down its throat to attract the metal foreign object and attempt to keep it in one place. If the wire or nail moves inside or gets pressed against the stomach wall, it can puncture an organ, causing serious infection or death.

Enzo got a magnet that day and some pain relievers, and by later the first night he looked better than he had for the last couple of days. The next day he was dead. The farmers and I felt we needed to prove to ourselves that nothing more could have been done or that it wasn’t some other condition. We decided to open Enzo’s body by doing a field necropsy. In the shade of the large black oak tree where he died, I double gloved, cut, and toiled through the voluminous internal abdominal parts of the steer. On suspicion of a cardiac event due to the suddenness of Enzo’s death, I decided to look in the chest cavity. There was more blood than I expected, and I had to grope blindly. I felt something that wasn’t animal tissue. There I found a four-penny stainless steel nail piercing the sac around the heart. The nail had pierced the reticulum and the cardiac sac. It had apparently started to migrate before the magnet we gave Enzo could trap it.

For that day, this small nail was my harvest. I was grateful for the harvest, the answer to what had happened to the steer. Sometimes the harvest is microscopic, not visible to the naked eye. A swab swept deep into the winding turbinates of a hog snout, when cultured at the lab, can tell me how to make the whole herd healthier. Harvest when used in medical lingo implies the preservation of and value of what you remove from the body for what it has to offer. The word can refer to a load of veggies from an Island farm, or it can be an answer to a medical problem.