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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They all go differently.

Euthanasia, and the process of euthanizing, is not a new concept or experience for me. My first euthanasia experiences were assisting with the euthanasia of research animals while working for the USDA and veterinary micropath department of the vet school. Horses, sheep, goats and cattle were the species involved in various research studies. There was a set protocol in place that made the process fast and efficient, which while it sounds cold, was also very humane. Some animals appeared healthy on the outside, and these were the more difficult ones to euthanize at the conclusion of a research study. Other animals were deeply affected by disease, and it was a deep relief to see them at rest and at peace.

While respectful and maintaining dignity of each research animal, the emotional element that is embedded in the relationship between owner and pet was missing. It wasn’t until I was working at a small animal hospital before veterinary school that I was exposed to the emotional elements that follow with the decision of an owner to say goodbye to a beloved pet. These cases, I will admit, tear me up. I have always linked with people’s emotions, and have an unwavering empathy for people. When an owner is sobbing or tearfully talking to their pet for the last time, I cannot help but shed tears. I’ve faced some unkind remarks from colleagues for this visceral reaction I have, but the truth is…I’m okay with it. It’s my most candid display of truely caring, both for the animal and the person attached. There is no shame in it.

Throughout veterinary school, I never had a patient that was euthanized. But I experienced my own loss in veterinary school when my 18 year old lifelong companion, my childhood cat, was euthanized after secuming to alimentary lymphoma. It was the single most significant and profound loss I’ve had in my life so far. It was traumatic, painful and was compounded by the fact that I probably waited a little to long to come to the decision. I didn’t realize this until after he was gone, and it remains a haunting realization.

Then, my internship brought forth many euthanasia experiences. I performed my first solo euthanasias in my final six months. For the most part, the process went quickly and well. The nature of euthanizing a horse appears sudden and abrupt. One minute the are standing, then they collapse. Sometimes, it is violent. There are many factors that contribute to how a horse goes down, and how quickly they are gone. Of the euthanasias that appear more difficult, or prolonged, I have noticed that these horses tended to have underlying cardiac or neurological diseases. There is individual variation, even without underlying disease (that we are aware of). On a rare occasion, there has been human error…but this is a deceiving statement. When it comes to injecting the solution, the most important part is that the entire solution enters the vein. In horses, this is the jugular vein. The Drug acts to stop the heart. The appropriate amount must enter the bloodstream, for a partial dose can render a situation fraught with danger, stress and possibly chaos. There are plenty of stories of euthanasia gone ary. It’s a haunting experience for everyone involved…and certainly the very last thing a veterinarian would ever want an owner to witness.


My first bad euthanasia experience happened on the second to last day of my internship. It was a middle-aged gelding that presented for severe colic, and Surgery was not an option. Despite medical management attempts, he became progressively uncomfortable and the decision was made to euthanize. It was the resident and I on the case, and owners were a younger couple struggling to keep their composure as they made the difficult decision. They had also decided to not bare witness, and were about to leave after final goodbyes. As they were stepping out, they changed their minds. They wanted to be present. We had to load the horse up on Pain killers and sedatives to buy me a couple minutes to grab the euthanasia supplies. Because of the horrible weather, we chose to euthanize in the work-up stall. At this point, he was being restrained in a shoot (a mobile door that swings, and keeps horses against the wall.
I injected the euthanasia solution into the catheter I had placed an hour before. All was still, while I held the door and the resident held his head. It was 30 seconds later that he started buckling and then launched forward. He took a nose dive, and his hind end almost came over his head. He started kicking within the chute, and the resident was doing everything in her power to hold him back for fear if he broke lose, he could crash into anyone or anything. Then, he had what appeared to be a seizure…rhythmic banging within the chute. The only other thing I could hear aside from his grunting and kicking was the owners gasping and running out of the room. Then, he sighed and passed away.

We don’t know this happened this way, with an adequate dose and a patent catheter into the jugular vein. There are many theories, I’m sure. But unfortunately, we’ll never know and worse yet, is that these were the last moments the owners will remember forever. I cried as soon as I got in the truck, cried all the way home, and then cried as I told my roommates what happened. It was one of those moments that brings up a barrage of negative feelings and the sense of ultimate failure. Guilt, shame, disappointment, fear, regret, remorse, confusion and shock…all in the face of failure. And I definitely started asking myself if I should even be a vet if I cannot be a good one.

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