Son’s shock illness opened my eyes to the value of emergency planning

Son’s shock illness opened my eyes to the value of emergency planning

Reflecting on one year ago, our farm was experiencing similar conditions, being wet and waterlogged. Grazing was becoming very challenging and resulted in some paddocks being closed with higher than ideal covers for the winter.

The west of Ireland has really been dealing with wet ground conditions for a whole year with only a small respite in March and May 2012.

However, our biggest challenge on this farm over the past 12 months had nothing to do with the wet conditions, managing cow condition or superlevy worries.

My youngest son was 22 months old last October when he started throwing up on a Thursday. I didn’t dwell on it too much at the time, thinking that it was just another common kids’ bug.

By Saturday though, the little lad had gone from being lively to somewhat dull and slightly distressed, so I took him straight to the doctor. Thankfully the doctor at this stage decided that he needed to go into hospital for re-hydration. Blood samples were taken immediately and they started to give fluids via a drip.

A very short while after being admitted, the results of the blood samples made my heart sink for the first of many times over the next 24 hours.

I was told that his kidneys had failed and that he would have to be transferred immediately to Dublin by ambulance. With just a small overnight bag, I accompanied my little boy to Temple Street at 2am on 22 October whilst my husband followed behind the ambulance in our car.

My son had Hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), which is a disorder that usually occurs when an infection in the digestive system produces toxic substances that destroy red blood cells, which had resulted acute kidney failure.

When all tests proved that it was caused by E. coli 157, my heart sank further. I knew that whilst only around one in three cases of E. coli result in a life threatening complication, 50pc of these would need renal dialysis and 3-5pc would die.

While all of our attention focused on getting the help my little boy needed, I couldn’t help but wonder how this had happened. E coli commonly occurs in livestock, so had this come in from the farm? In my mind I questioned everything we had eaten, what and how things had been done.

The local Public Health centre took numerous samples and the only thing that tested positive for E. coli 157 in our case was our water. Taken from a well on the farm, and consumed by a number of families for years, it was an area we overlooked when building our house.

Not anymore. We now have a UV filter on the well to treat the water. Our son was in Temple Street for 17 days, and on dialysis for 15 days.

The doctors and nurses worked tirelessly and were fantastic as we waited patiently for a sign of the return of his renal function.

It took 10 days for him to urinate, which was our first hope of some recovery. Although not fully recovered, we were allowed home with regular monitoring. It was an ordeal that lasted right into the New Year, but at his last checkup in August all the tests indicated a healthy young boy.

The hope is that he will have no future complications, but we realise that we were lucky, and appreciate all the support that we were given.

In dairy farming, emphasis is placed on planning in terms of financial budgets, cashflows, grass budgets, livestock numbers and expansion plans. Plans for emergencies are often overlooked.

It was October. Our cows were still milking and still had to be milked the following morning as we raced to Dublin. Fortunately, my father in-law knows the farm inside out and was able to step in to manage the farm the minute we left.

My mother-in-law was an angel as she stepped in to look after our other child. But what if it had been March and our cows were calving, and we didn’t have help from our family?

When you are faced with an emergency, you have to deal with the essentials. Farm management takes a rear seat.

What can help?

Firstly, it’s important to have a farm that’s straightforward to run. Systems and tools such as a farm map, manual, or on-the-wall instructions can be a great help for a person who has to unexpectedly step in to manage the farm.

Technology can also provide valuable information quickly and the ability to manage these remotely is also valuable.

Secondly, someone who knows the farm, its infrastructure, machinery and livestock and who is reliable in character must be identified so this role can be filled at a drop of a hat.

Thirdly, you need extended family or trusted friends who can step in to take over the family and keep the family home in order whilst away.

The next point is one that is often overlooked. Emergencies are associated with unexpected costs, so having a cash reserve is important.

You also need to manage the livestock diseases that can affect humans. In this instance I recommend testing your water and having a UV filter on your well. Finally, as it’s Halloween soon, why not trick or treat for Temple Street.

Dr Mary Kinston is a farm consultant based in Kerry. Email: