Over the past seventeen years of shepherding, there have been times when I was ill-prepared for a situation in which one or more of my sheeps’ lives hung in the balance. I had to either try to save them or stand back and watch them die. At this point in my life, when I have more years behind me than I likely have before me, I know enough about myself to know that I am a fixer. If I think that I may be able to fix a bad situation, I will usually wade right in without looking back.
When I took a basic first-aid class years ago, I learned how to perform the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge an upper airway obstruction. No one at that time thought to mention whether it was possible to perform this procedure on a sheep. At that time, shepherding was not even a thought that had entered my head. I learned the maneuver well and actually saved one of my children from a wayward oyster cracker. Many years later, when one of my ewes had a similar blockage, my instinct to fix the problem kicked in. What other tool did I have at my disposal? None. I barely had time to wonder whether it would work, but I figured she would die if I did nothing. I grabbed her around the body just below the rib cage and quickly hefted my locked hands up and forward as if to pick her up — and the obstruction flew out! I turns out you can do the Heimlich maneuver on sheep. Who knew?
Although I know that non-shepherds will likely read this next part and shake their heads, thinking Oh, no – that’s where I draw the line!, I have also done mouth-to-snout CPR on lambs — several times. There is something about seeing a newborn lamb giving up and ready to die that galvanizes me into action – action that I originally thought was more than I’d be willing to do. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline that rushes through me in those moments, but whatever it is, it works! It is possible to do mouth-to-snout breathing and some form of chest compressions and bring a lamb back to life.
When I pulled Ivy’s second lamb last week, he refused to breathe. There seemed to be so little my friend Emilly and I could do as his life ebbed away. I swung him to dislodge any mucus that might be blocking his airway, and it didn’t help. We tried lots of vigorous massage, and although we could see and feel his heart beating, he did not breathe. Emilly asked whether I had ever done mouth-to-snout breathing, and I admitted I had. Honestly, I’d just been thinking about it. I knew he wouldn’t last long without a breath, so I grabbed his little face, put my mouth over his nose and mouth, and gave him a slight puff of air. We massaged some more and gave him more puffs. We worked in this way for about ten minutes — and he suddenly took a small breath of his own! We weren’t out of the woods yet, but seeing that there was hope, we continued both our vigorous massage and puffs of breath as needed.
So yes, it is possible to adapt some of these lifesaving techniques to sheep. When a life hangs in the balance, I do what I must to try to turn the tables towards life and away from death. After all, isn’t that what you would want a shepherd to do for their flock?