From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Begin with the End in Mind

I owe whatever success I have had to this power of settling down to the day’s work and trying to do it to the best of one’s ability and letting the future take care of itself.

Sir William Osler

I grew up on a farm/ranch combo in southern Idaho and wanted to be a veterinarian from the time I was knee-high to a dairy cow. Our two modest-sized parcels of land held dairy cows, beef cows, horses, pigs, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats and even tropical fish.

With such a mosaic of animals on the farm and an honest like (pigs and sheep) if not love (dogs, cats, horses) for them, I told everybody I wanted to be like the two veterinarians in our community, mixed-animal practitioners willing to look at anything the ark could throw at them.

In 1980 at the age of twenty-one, I achieved my calling and went to veterinary school at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, with a heart leading me toward a mixed-animal career. Soon, student debt began to pile up and my wallet started leading me toward a possible military veterinarian career. Then I began to spend more time working with the veterinary school dean and my mentor, Dr. Leo Bustad, on the “People Pet Partnership” that matched elderly people with homeless pets. Those humananimal healthcare connections made me lean towards becoming a companion-animal practitioner. If I wasn’t being career-whipsawed enough, an equine professor of mine, Dr. Rick Debowes, demonstrated an enviable blend of science and soul and made me wonder if I shouldn’t look at being an equine vet.

I was a junior in veterinary school and it was Friday night. Tired of thinking, I had my mind on social-hour drinking with my classmates at a blue-collar bar called the Corner Club. This was before cell-hell, when you could hide out from people who didn’t have electronic tethers to track you down and retract you back into reality via cell phone, beeper or PDA.

However, I was on emergency call for the equine barn at the vet school and a very persuasive receptionist tracked down my lifelong friend and roommate who knew where to find me at 6:00 p.m. on Friday night. The phone rang at the Corner Club and through the din, I heard Mike tell me that I needed to get to the veterinary school right away for an equine emergency. Relinquishing the remainder of my first draft beer, I headed for Pullman where there were some draft horses in trouble.

When I got there, I found out that we had a big problem on our hands. Literally. Four Belgian Draft horses, 17-hands high and each weighing about 2,100 pounds, had broken through a fence surrounding a Palouse-area grain field that was being planted and proceeded to belly up to the grain truck for an all-you-could-eat wheat buffet.

These horses were really sick with the clinical signs that make horse vets ill just by mentioning them: founder, laminitis and diarrhea.

Despite the serious condition of the horses and the high drama that surrounded them in the barn, my beloved equine professor, Dr. Debowes, kept his calm, using this as a great teaching case to educate two veterinary students about diagnosis and treatment of things we would certainly face in equine or mixed practice some day, even perhaps with our own horses.

My classmate and I had two basic jobs. Work on the front end of the horse, keeping the horses well-hydrated with IV fluids that coursed into the large neck veins, and give them oral medications for the pain of laminitis. The other job was to regularly use a large thermometer to measure the horse’s temperature, looking for telltale signs of shock.

Now anyone who’s worked around animals knows that to take their temperature you don’t shake down the mercury in the thermometer, tell them to say “Ahhhh,” and stick it under their tongue. Today, some veterinary clinics have fancy thermometers that use infrared to measure core body temperature from the ear canal, but when I was in school we did it the old-fashioned way. My classmate Shelly and I literally drew straws to determine which end was up, as it were. Luckily, I drew the front-row seat and was about to witness something that would determine my career path and be seared into my consciousness forever.

Shelly moved sequentially down the metal stocks to take the temperature of the horses. By the third horse, she had fallen into a rhythm; shake the thermometer down to settle the mercury, insert the thermometer, wait a minute, withdraw the thermometer, take a reading and record it on the individual horse’s medical record that was held on a clipboard. As Shelly approached the fourth horse and leaned in to insert the thermometer, the horse suddenly coughed and the grain percolating in the horse’s gastrointestinal track picked up speed—dramatically. Hearing the eruption, I peered around from the front of the horse to see Shelly backing away. Quite calmly, given the circumstances, with as much professional decorum as she could muster, Shelly carefully set down the thermometer and clipboard, looked at me thoughtfully and said, “Interested in trading ends of the horse on the next go around?”

With a great sense of humor and an even greater sense of our limitations, both Shelly and I decided on the spot to become companion-animal veterinarians. We also both became horse owners, but neither of us ever approached horses directly from the rear again.

We hire other vets to do that!

Marty Becker, D.V.M.

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