Farmers talk health

Alex McMillan is up and ready to go at what most would call the crack of dawn, but what dairy farmers see as a late morning start.

<b>HEALTHY FARMER:</b>Alex McMillan is up bright and early to do his farm work.
HEALTHY FARMER:Alex McMillan is up bright and early to do his farm work.

It’s 6.30am and the sun hasn’t yet risen in Paeroa. The farm is shrouded in a heavy layer of fog. It’s a spooky sight, but the 19-year-old is used to it.

After a short trip down the road on the back of a muddy dirt bike, Alex gets straight to work, hauling himself up onto the farm’s tractor and emptying a bag of mineral mix onto the maize silage in the trailer. There are 350 cows on this farm, and they’re not going to feed themselves.

Today is a more relaxed day for this farmer. It’s not milking or calving season, so the day’s tasks are generally limited to feeding and shifting cows, then doing maintenance work. Today it’s tagging heifers and fishing wandering cattle out of ditches, among other things.

During milking season he’s up at five and milking the cows before he’s even had his breakfast. Working roughly a 12 hour day, it’s easy to understand how he might not find time to visit the doctor if he’s feeling unwell. But it’s a good thing Alex did visit the doctor on February 25, or things might have ended badly.

Alex’s girlfriend was sitting in class when she received a text from him saying that his appendix was inflamed and he was going into surgery.

“I hadn’t heard from him all morning so I texted him to make sure he was okay,” says 19-year-old Wintec journalism student Sacha Harwood. “He texted me back ‘I’m in hospital.’”

Alex says “Normally when I’m crook I can do what I’ve got to do at work, but in the morning I could hardly milk. I milked that morning and I could hardly walk in the cow shed.

“In the morning I said to the relief milker ‘I’ve got a pretty sore side. Feels like it could be my appendix.’ And she was like ‘Nah, you’ll be alright,’ in the good old fashioned Kiwi way.”

While the fact that he was in too much pain to climb the tractor steps should have been a warning sign, it was only once he found himself lying in bed hugging a pillow that Alex realised it might be time to pay the doctor a visit.

“He was lucky that he caught it when he did,” Sacha says. “I think if he had listened to a lot of people and just hardened up then it could have been a lot worse.”

Alex believes to a degree that there’s a stigma attached to farmers seeking medical help. “We think we’re a pack of hard bastards,” he laughs.

The weekend following his surgery found him throwing tyres onto a maize pile, something doctors didn’t envision him doing when they told him he needed six weeks of rest. Six weeks is a long time for a dairy farmer, according to Alex.

Even though his boss was giving him all the time he needed to recover, Alex said he felt hopeless, and that he knew he could do the work himself.

Sacha says “I was worried that he wasn’t going to have enough self-control to sit still for the amount of time it would take for him to recover. And he didn’t, which did create complications.”

Alex popped his stitches out while working, giving him an infection which lasted for at least two weeks.

He’s not the only dairy farmer who can’t sit still though. James Young has already had the flu for several days, but is still hard at work.

“I haven’t had a sick day for four years,” he says.

James believes being up and about doing farm work helps get rid of colds and flus quicker. “I think it speeds it up a little bit,” he says. “When you’re sick at home I reckon you feel worse. When you’re out working, your mind’s on the job, not feeling sick.

“I don’t want to go to the doctor. They poke and prod you. I feel like a cow.”

Moments later, James receives a call on his cellphone, and is immediately off down the road on a quad bike, despite being ill. Some cows are in places they shouldn’t be, it turns out.

Then we meet Josh Firth, a farmer, who says he’d probably wait till he had to be carried to the doctor before he’d go.

In a bid to encourage people like Josh to visit their doctor once in a while, the Waikato and Bay of Plenty division of the New Zealand Cancer Society will be attending this year’s Fieldays at the Mystery Creek events centre. They’ll be focusing on men’s health, specifically colon cancer. With what they hope will be a fun, informal and interactive environment, they aim to get people more interested in their own health and the prevention of diseases.

Being self-employed means taking time off is perhaps even trickier for Josh. One of the worst parts he finds about having to work while sick is the weather.

“You can’t relax,” he says. “It’s generally crap weather, which doesn’t really help.”

He, too, agrees there’s a bit of a stigma when visiting the doctor, saying he doesn’t like to show weakness.

“Last time I went to the doctor I ended up in surgery,” Alex says sheepishly.

“Don’t do that again,” Josh jokes.