coveralls, a headlamp flickering from
her forehead, and we hurried inside the
barn to the sick mare.
The lights were on, and with the
door pulled shut, the barn was
almost cozy. I forgot my miseries
immediately and got to work on
poor Clover, who did not look well
at all. Her heart rate was too high,
and there was an eerie silence in
her abdomen. She was dehydrated
and it was difficult to find a vein. I
cautiously injected a mild sedative to
help her feel more comfortable.
Carefully I slid a gloved arm into
her rectum, and pulled out a soft manure pile coated with a thick webbing of
mucus. This was abnormal, and told me that her gut wasn’t moving normally.
Palpating further, I rested my hand on top of her large colon, but there was no
answering movement, and my fingers slipped along several ominously enlarged
and fluid-filled loops of small intestine. This was a dire finding. The small intestine
should never appear so far back in the abdomen, and I didn’t need an ultrasound
to tell me that there was a surgical problem somewhere along its 70 or so feet—
possibly a twist or an entrapment.
When the small intestine is full of fluid and not moving, there’s only one place
for the fluid to go, and that’s into the stomach. Since horses can’t vomit, the
stomach can become dangerously distended, and in some cases, rupture.
Time to Act
I had to pass a stomach tube right away, and if there was any excess fluid
present, get it out immediately. Fortunately, the tube passed easily and I emptied
her stomach. We had to make some tough decisions and make them quickly.
The nearest qualified surgeon was over three hours away, and it was going
to be a tough trip over steep mountain passes in a spring blizzard. I was
giving my best assessment of the mare without the benefit of bloodwork,
an ultrasound or belly tap. If I was wrong, I was sending the owners and
horse on a long, dangerous trek for nothing. Or the mare could become
violently painful on the road, or even die. There were so many variables out
of my control. Anxiously, I loaded syringes with emergency drugs and gave
instructions for their use. Soon they were pulling out into the worsening storm
and were gone into the swirling snow.
I slept badly that night, imaging them fighting the storm and steep mountain
roads with poor Clover in distress in her dark, cold trailer. I remembered
my sour attitude and my self-pity when they’d called for my help, and I felt
ashamed as I lay in my warm bed tossing and turning. At 5 a.m., I couldn’t stand
it any longer and called the referral hospital. Clover had arrived safely, but there
was no news yet.
By 8 a.m., I still hadn’t heard anything. I called again to learn that Clover
had been rushed into surgery and was still on the table. I paced the floor, and
at 9: 45 a.m., a call came from the hospital. Clover had 9 feet of small intestine
entrapped and twisted. They had to remove it, as it was badly damaged. She was
alive but still very ill, and the next couple of days would be critical. They moved
her into intensive care and the wait began.
A Full Recovery
Clover made it. She cleared all of the hurdles, probably motivated by the
thought of eating again, and within 14 days was back home. The weather was
beautiful for her return trip, the steep passes dry and clear, and any first-time
visitor to the Rockies would have no idea how evil this same road had been
only a short time ago.
Today, a small scar on Clover’s belly is all that remains of her ordeal on that
wintery spring night. She’s at home where she belongs, and hopefully has many
long, healthy years ahead. And she’s back to snapping up her food like a Labrador
Retriever, so we know all is well with her.
COURTNEY S. DIEHL, DVM, has been an equine veterinarian since 2000. She resides in Steamboat
Springs, Colo., where she is in private practice. Her first book, Horse Vet, Chronicles of a Mobile
Veterinarian, was published in 2014, and she is currently at work on her second book.