When we cannot save them all, but we can save some

Like many rescues in the area,”Starfish Rescue” used to rotate through all the local vets. Almost as if going through phases. Before I eve stepped foot on the property, I was warned ahead of time. One, their bill is outstanding at over $5,000 owed. Two, overcrowding. Three, don’t be surprised if compliance is low. Four, don’t get sucked in.

My first time arriving at the rescue was in response to a horse that was down and seizing. We never determined the cause, and he never seized again. My second visit, months later, was to recheck a laminitis case that my colleague had seen a couple of weeks prior. The mare had recently had her feet trimmed, and Maureen (owner of the rescue)reported the mare was still having difficulties walking. It was difficult to focus on the laminitis over the glaring neurological deficits. After a full neurological work-up, EPM was at the top of our differential list. With titers returning at >3500 with two subspecies, we felt comfortable with the confirmed diagnosis and began treatment.

Over the next couple months, I attended several more emergencies at the rescue. Sick foals, colicking mares, face wounds, terrible leg wounds, even a sweet gelding hit by a car…cases I will never forget for both good and sorrowful reasons. And trying to make a difference, while balancing financial constraints with high quality diagnostics/treatments means a lot of advanced diagnostics went under the radar. With a limited budget composed of donations, it is a different challenge all of its own trying to negotiate and prioritize which horses to treat and which horses could not be saved…especially when the rescue’s conviction stands behind saving them all.

Early on, my recommendations based on poor prognosis (septic joints, fractured joints) was unheeded. It would take weeks for the rescue to come to the same conclusion, with the euthanasia being performed by the same person who picks up the horses afterwards. A bullet to the skull can be an effective form of euthanasia, but when it goes terribly wrong, it can be one of the most inhumane ways.

6 months in, and I have earned their trust. Early on, I would have to defend every diagnostic, medication, treatment protocol and justify quality of life concern. Now, not only am I greeted with open arms, but their compliance with my instructions and view of my professional opinion, does not waver. It is amazing what time (on and off the clock), patience and a whole lot of energy can do for a relationship, especially a professional veterinary one.

There have been cases that tugged my heartstrings, and cases that I spent night after night attending. We have lost some horses and saved some horses, but with every horse, we have always tried our best. It was some of these strange cases that I further expanded on my skill set, performing joint lavages and regional limb perfusions. With money a constant wall we are up against, I’ve put in many calls to specialists and board certified surgeons/internists. I am thankful for both their time and energy, and the helpful advice that has led me to treating cases in unconventional, yet successful manners.

So, although I didn’t know it when I showed up at Starfish Rescue the first time, it would come to be one of those places with some of the most sincerely compassionate people I have ever met…and something I have wholeheartedly become thankful for this year. And it reminds me of medicine in general, that we cannot save them all, but we can certainly save some.

Case of the Mondays

Like most things in life, do something long enough and often enough, and it gets easier. Drawing blood, placing catheters, passing a nasogastric tube, suturing…do it often, with a goal of doing it well. Then, there comes the added benefit of confidence. And there’s no better way to appreciate a skill, than to have acquired it and then lost it. About halfway through a “typical” day, I was made aware of those skills I take for granted.


BAL Gone [every kind of] Wrong

It started with performing a bronchoalveolar lavage on a gelding with intermittent coughing over the past year which fluctuated with weather, exercise and environment. With non-specific findings on ultrasound, we proceeded in our diagnostic plan to determine the nature of the cough. We elected to retrieve a non sterile sample from the lower airways to evaluate for RAO and IAD. I’ve passed an endoscope countless times, and performed it successfully and easily enough that I consider it at acquired, reliable skill.

By the conclusion of the BAL, I felt like I had rehearsed for a performance demonstrating everything that could not go right. The highlights of this performance included:

  1. BAL tubing hit the ethymoids, causing a profound nosebleed
  2. Projectile, unrelenting spraying of clots across self, assistant, owner, trainer and three innocent onlookers
  3. BAL tube entered the esophagus, rather than the trachea
  4. BAL tube retroflexed and came out the oral cavity
  5. BAL tube severed by teeth when traveling through the oral cavity
  6. BAL tube #1 ruined, retrieved BAL tube #2
  7. BAL tube positioned correctly in trachea, cuff would not inflate
  8. BAL tube #2 leaky cuff confirmed
  9. Continuation of #2 problem (Projectile, unrelenting spraying of clots across self, assistant, owner, trainer and onlookers)
  10. BAL tube in position, cuff inflated, saline injected in…unable to collect any saline
  11. Added more saline through tubing, retrieved <40 ml

I was relieved when the whole thing was done. After all the above complications, at least the sample was collected and submitted. What else could go wrong? Then, I got the lab report stating:

Sample has insufficient cells, inconclusive. Recommend collect second sample for analysis.

This was just the first appointment of the day.


Miscommunications, mistakes, mishaps and misfortune

When not a soul could be found at our second appointment, I called the owner. Turns out, the appointment had been rescheduled to the following week…news of which, didn’t happen to make it to today’s day schedule.
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Our third appointment canceled.

Our fourth and fifth appointments had the wrong addresses (showed up at a neighbor developement and then mistakenly went to the owner’s house instead of the boarding facility).

Collected the wrong blood tubes, forgot to dispense a medication refill, double-charged on an invoice, made at least 12 U-turns…

And the cherry on top? At 6pm, as we’re wrapping up at the last appointment and about to begin our 90 minute drive home through late rush hour traffic…my assistant hesitantly asks,

“Hey, have you been having problems with the gas gauge?”

I hadn’t. No one had. About 4 minutes later, the thing we were dreading came to fruition. We ran out of gas.


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Mindhunters and Midnight Calls

For my first on-call weekend, I was co-pilot to one of the associates and assistants. Around 11:30pm, as we were wrapping up our 4th emergency of the day, we got an ER call for a horse in respiratory distress. The first address we arrived at was in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, obviously the wrong address. We idled in the couldesac while the associate, Dr. Kepper, struggled to get the correct address. It seemed no one on the phone knew the address for the residence, althought they confirmed the horse was in fact at their residence.

After 25 minutes of wrong turns, u-turns, and sleuthing via google maps, we made it to the right road. We drove quickly down the paved road, passing occasional looming, dimly lit mansions. When the driveway ended, we parked in front of a run-down expansive ranch home. None of us got out at first. We just watched the events unfold infront of us. Our arrival sparked some confusion amongst the obviously enebriated residents. Enebriation, not uncommon for late night calls, usually owners who opened a bottle or two of wine before discovering their horse had a laceration or bit of colic. But it didn’t take long observing this group of random strangers, that enbriation was a little too soft a word. Their movements were, for lack of a better word, tweaky. Their speech was incoherient, thoughts scrambled. I wondered how they had managed to call us, let alone find our practice online.

I am going to preface the remainder of the story with this small tidbit: Earlier today, I had binge-watched the second half of Netflix’s season one of Mindhunters.

One man, in his mid 40s, approached us. To access the back pasture, they had to move a truck which blocked the driveway around the back of the house. We did not think much, until a scrawny young man and man in his mid 70s came wandering through the overgrown hedges of the front lawn. From somewhere in these hedges, they produced jumper cables.

Dr. Kepper wasn’t about to wait for these shenanigans. “We’ll just walk. How far is the horse?”

The central area of the house was mostly windows with a large atrium garden. With every light on inside you could see the entire layout of the home. Dark is dark, I’ll admit. But it wasn’t until I got outside that I realized just how dark the night was. No moon, no stars, just darkness above and around. I grabbed the headlamp and Dr. Kepper carried her laptop as a makeshift light source. The guy lead us around the side of the house, wading into darkness and unknown terrain. In the light of my headlamp, I saw he had his shoes on the wrong feet, the last half of the shoelace strands worn off. He wore one dirty sock. I glanced inside the house in time to see a figure of a woman sitting on the floor rocking back and forth anxiously.

Uneven steps led down the side of the house past windows of the daylight basement. One of the windows in the basement had black, metal bars on the inside of the glass. The room was empty, but I could see a jail-style door on the opposite wall. On the other side of the rod-iron door was a normal door. No one else seemed to notice the homemade “cage.”

This was the point at which Mindhunters triggered my rampant imagination. We continued in silence down behind the house, through the middle of a pasture of unknown proportion. The only noise was the sound of us slushing through damp, tall grass. After several minutes, an old barn loomed ahead in the glow of my headlamp. Dr. Kepper marched on, following a couple yards behind the man. The barn had two big doors, but the first thing I noticed were the many, many locks and bolts and chains on the outside. It as not necessary to count the number of bolts, padlocks and chains to know that it was excessive and albeit, alarming.

The man was heading straight for the barn, Dr. Kepper striding behind. The assistant shot me a “this is #$%@ing sketch look.” I mouthed back “I will not go in there.”

Just as we thought he was going to start unlatching, unlocking the doors, he turned and lead us beyond beyond broken fencing into another expansive field. If possible, this field felt even darker than the first. I couldn’t see the house behind us anymore and I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was following us.

This was when I began to wonder if there even was a sick horse here.

I kept checking behind us as I followed Dr. Kepper’s laptop glow. Just as I was going to ask how much further to the horse, a shadowy figure came into view. I feel kind of ashamed to admit it, but it was a wave of relief that washed over me the moment I saw the down horse. Then that relief vanished, and we all launched into emergency care mode.

The mare, down and unresponsive, had labored breathing, no CRT, a heart rate of 80 and weak peripheral pulse. She was matted, sticky with sweat that had cooled, and her muscles were rigid. It was very apparent she had been suffering for some time. Her body was covered in wounds, the ground around her torn up from her thrashing around. After discussing prognosis and options, the owner elected for euthanasia. Although a sad ending, the ability to bring an end to her drawn out suffering was the most compassionate thing we could do. While the owner disappeared into the darkness, we sat with the mare for a few moments before confirming she had passed.

Silently, under the glow of the dying headlamp and Dr. Keppler’s laptop, we navigated our way back to the truck. After loading up, no one said a word until we had some distance.

“I know no one attacked us or threatened us, but I just have the feeling that we narrowly escaped with our lives.” I said, and a some laughter lightened the heavy mood in the truck…right before Dr. Kepper’ phone rang with the next late night emergency.


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