From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

On Call

Hope arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible.

William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

One of my first nights on call started by responding to a page, arriving at the veterinary hospital and rushing into the operating room only to find the lights were out and the room was silent. Suddenly I realized they needed me in the other building where fractures were treated. I had been working as a veterinary technician at a large university hospital for only nine months and my training was still in progress. On this particular night, the only information given was an emergency had arrived that needed my immediate attention. I was calm, yet anxious as I headed in to work.

After realizing where I was needed, I hurried up the hill to discover the usual activity associated with the arrival of a serious fracture. Doctors and nurses rushed in and out of the recovery stall off of the orthopedic surgery room. The patient was having blood drawn and a catheter placed so that intravenous fluids could be given. A surgery resident held a stethoscope to the animal’s chest, listening intently.

As I entered the stall, it surprised me to see our patient for the first time. There stood a tiny pony no more than 11-hands tall. She was fuzzy all over looking like something out of a storybook with her fat belly, shaggy mane and tail and long whiskers. The only thing out of place was the unnatural angle at which she held her right hind leg. As I came closer, I realized she was shaking and sweating even though the night was cool.

As I approached, I heard her family talking to her, their voices quiet and serious, “It’s okay, Mama, we love you, the doctors are going to fix you right up,” chirped a small child. Her name was Daisy and the pony she crooned to was a twenty-eight-year-old with a fractured tibia.

A fractured tibia on a human being is serious, but on a horse, it usually means the death sentence. Mama’s age was against her but what Mama had going for her was her size, she probably only weighed about 500 pounds and was so low to the ground that we would be able to assist her as she attempted to stand after surgery without torqueing and possibly re-fracturing the leg. It was this reason and this reason only that gave the doctors hope that they would be able to help Mama. Her family included Mom, Dad, Daisy and her twin brothers, Will and Matt, who were as worried as their younger sister about the seriousness of the pony’s condition.

Looking wide-eyed and terrified, Daisy turned to her father and asked, “Daddy, you won’t let Mama die, will you?” That look in her eyes tugged on everyone’s heart. I knew we would be working all night to save Mama.

Now that the stage was set, we moved into high gear. An orthopedic case like this one is very involved requiring many surgical instruments and supplies. I rushed into Central Supply, the area where all of our surgical instruments are kept, and I quickly set to work putting the supplies on a stainless steel cart, which I then rolled into the surgery room where the anesthesia technician was setting up her equipment. Working with us that night were two surgery residents and because this was such a difficult case, a senior surgeon.

As the clock moved toward 1:00 a.m., preparations finally came to a close. The induction of anesthesia began and I set to work getting Mama ready for the most significant few hours of her life. Positioning the animal on the surgery table is the most critical aspect of the patient prep. Horses that weigh upwards of 1,200 pounds run the risk of permanent nerve damage if they are not positioned perfectly. Once we had Mama positioned appropriately, I commenced clipping her leg. After the clipping came the vacuum cleaner, sucking up Mama’s shaggy hair from the surgery area and the floor. “Caps and masks,” I sang out as I began to wash Mama’s leg with warm water and antiseptic. Everyone scurried off to get their hats and masks.

Obviously, Mama lived outside all year round. Her entire body was covered with caked-on mud and her tail filled with cockleburs. As the warm soapy water ran down her leg onto the surgery table and ultimately the floor, Mama’s skin began to get clean. Under that hair and dirt, I discovered a lovely pink leg that began to look as though someone could perform surgery on it. With the final prep completed, I moved quickly to opening the sterile surgery table and instruments. The doctors arrived gloved and gowned and we settled into the surgery.

The night marched on slowly, one hour ticked by and then another. Mama was doing well under anesthesia but the surgeons soon discovered that poor Mama’s leg had shattered into five or six pieces. As a resident held the pieces in place, the senior surgeon worked to attach the rest of the pieces like a long thin jigsaw puzzle. Screws were positioned to attach a seven-hole stainless steel plate to Mama’s tibia. Once the plate was secured, the surgery site could be closed. It was debatable whether this repair would hold and everyone was thinking the same thought, “This effort can’t be in vain, Mama has to make it!”

At 5:30, the bandage was on and we were all bleary-eyed as Mama was moved into the recovery area. As I wheeled the cart of used instruments into sterilizing, the anesthesia tech settled in on the floor of the recovery stall next to Mama, monitoring her vital signs and ready to assist her when it came time for Mama to stand. The ensuing minutes would be crucial to Mama’s long-term recovery.

While I cleaned and washed the instruments, members of the surgical team waited anxiously in the stall with Mama. After about half an hour, she began to stir. First, she picked up her head and then she gingerly began to move her legs. After a few more minutes, she rolled and sat up. Now her head was up and she looked at us with eyes that said, “What happened? Where am I and who in the heck are you people?” Her sweat- and urine-soaked coat was plastered to her body from hours of lying on the table. She had the look of someone who had just returned from an all night binge.

Thankfully, she was a clever pony and seemed to know it was best to just stay put for now until the room stopped spinning and she could figure out how to get her feet under her again. Eventually, she deliberately extended her front feet out in front of her and made a mighty heave.With a surgeon pulling on her tail and the anesthetist steadying her head, Mama pulled herself back to vertical, a place she hadn’t been for the past six hours. At first, she was wobbly and refused to move, but before long, she began to whinny and take a few careful steps around the recovery stall.

OnceMama seemed a bit surer of herself,we carefully ushered her to her stall in the barn. This was a slow process since she wasn’t certain about her ability to walk, but eventually we got her into the stall with a full water bucket, a thick bed of clean straw and a mound of fresh hay in the corner.

Mama’s family had waited all night in the lobby to see how she would do and were soon alerted that now was the time they could come and see their pony. One of the barn nurses escorted them to her stall. Young Daisy threw her arms around Mama’s neck and buried her face in her mane. “Oh, Mama, you made it!” she sobbed. The rest of the family crowded around, tears streaming down their faces as Mama nickered in response. I couldn’t hold back my own tears, the memories of the long, arduous night fading as I watched them scratch Mama’s neck and feed her carrots.

The recovery from a major fracture is usually long and slow. The possibility of infection is significant and no one can truly predict the outcome. Somehow, with Mama I had the feeling that things would go well. As it turned out, her hospital stay was brief, only a week, where some horses can take months.

One spring day the following year, one of the residents from the team stopped me as I was setting up for surgery. With a huge smile on his face he said, “Amy, here’s something I thought you might like to see.”

He handed me a letter from Mama’s family with a picture enclosed of Mama with Daisy mounted proudly on her back. The sheer happiness that shone on that little girl’s face was so obvious that I almost didn’t need to read the letter. Mama had a full recovery and was back to her beloved pastime, trotting around a riding ring teaching youngsters to ride.

Anne Hope

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