Fall 2011



The Two-Headed Calf

Thomas Gibbs

I hadn’t thought much about her over the last five decades. My obstetrics and gynecology practice had kept me focused. But then, during a routine sonogram, I identified a fetus with two heads. The image of the Jersey calf crossed my mind. I pushed it back; it wouldn’t go.

When I was a boy living on a farm in Cortland County, New York, I heard about a newborn calf with two heads. I don’t recall if it was my friend Freddie Forbes who lived on a farm next door or if it was one of the Quail boys who told me. Whoever it was said the calf had been taken to the 4-H dairy show at the county fairgrounds just down the road from my two-room elementary school.

“Are ya gonna see it?” I asked.

“Yup, soon as chores are done.”

I didn’t see the calf when I walked along the dirt road toward the barns so I headed inside the first building. The cows lined up in the long rows for judging were Holsteins, large black and white cows that were huge milk producers. They stood in knee high straw. The 4-H’ers had spent months prepping their pet projects. Even the cow’s tails were powdered to look clean and white. The barn smelled like the talc in Johnnie’s Barber Shop down on Main St. Each animal had been trained to stand perfectly square and look straight ahead. When a cow pie dropped, it was scooped up and removed. Large fans kept the air moving. The animals were in top condition.

The two-headed calf was out back. I guess some of the parents didn’t want their kids to see her. She was a Jersey. We had Jerseys on our place. They were brown and resembled deer. Their small size and gentle disposition made them a good choice for a family farm. Father didn’t worry about us hand milking them. My mother was afraid of cows and never went in the barn. But she was happy that Jerseys gave more cream. She made butter from the cream and used the milk to feed her family of ten children.

The calf had been left out in the sun on a ramp leading from the show barn. She was lying down; her heads lower than her body. She must have been taken from her mother right away. The birth bag was stuck to her shoulders and back. Her back end was covered in thick crust. The belly button looked nasty. Flies were everywhere. There were three or four boys standing around.

“Can’t get up,” one of them said.

Things were cockeyed. The two heads were joined at the neck; one looked to the right, one to the left. There were four eyes, two mouths, four nostrils, but only three ears. Her heads were larger than the rest of the calf put together. She couldn’t lift them up; her body was flopped over on one side. When she bawled both mouths opened up. I noticed there was no water bucket. I asked the boy next to me if she could drink out of both sides.

“Naah,” he said, “it won’t make it. Can’t live like that.” I didn’t know how he knew but I took his word for it. He must have come from a big farm.

“Wonder what they’ll do with it?” another boy asked.

My mind didn’t seem to be working right. I thought hard. “Maybe they’ll take her over to the Cornell vet school,” I said when no one else came up with anything. I knew about Cornell. My father had taken us over to see the breeding livestock at the university. I wasn’t prepared for the size of the bulls. Their backs almost scraped the ceilings of the pens. They stomped and snorted like they would charge the gate. I was scared. My father was a small town general practice doctor and he had seen farmers killed by out-of-control bulls. We used the Cornell artificial insemination service to cover our cows. Out regular vet was Cornell trained. The university farm visit left a big impression on me. Maybe they could help.

My father came home late that night from the county hospital. I waited for him to sit at the table before I asked about the calf. He was quiet for awhile before he answered. “Her insides are probably as abnormal as the outside. They should put her down. I am sorry they took her to the fair. I wish you hadn’t seen her. The 4-H leaders should know better.”

“Uh, Oh,” I said to myself. From the tone of his voice I knew something would happen. He would let someone know what he thought. I didn’t bring up Cornell.

I wondered if my father was right this time about the insides being abnormal when the outside was. I looked; there was only one heart. I could see it beating. I felt useless. There was nothing I could do to fix the problem. I did not use the term conjoined twins. I searched for gentle words. My words failed.

Mary began to curl up on the exam table. Her grief could not be contained. I sat with her until her body calmed. After a second opinion consultation with a high-risk specialist she requested termination.

I practice in a city where elective terminations are not permitted in hospitals. If a patient has a life-threatening medical problem or a fetal anomaly she has to sit in front of the abortion committee at the facility. I thought my patient had gone through enough. It seemed that sending her to be interviewed by three physicians was cruel. How does a woman talk about her two-headed baby?

I couldn’t get the two-headed calf out of my mind. I did what I needed to do. For the first time in my medical career I broke rules. My diagnosis read what would work not what was. Some would say I lied; others would say there was less than full disclosure. My patient avoided the committee.

I don’t do abortions. I did this one. The calf made me do it. 

There is a large flat screen monitor on the back wall of the ultrasound room in my office. Patients and families can view the studies as they progress. I explained that it appeared the pregnancy had started to divide into twins but the separation was not complete.

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