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July 23, 2014

When The Vet Becomes The Client

Liz took Eph to New Bolton Center (Pa.) where they diagnosed him with a fractured pelvis.

I have some good news and some bad news and, as usual for me, the reveal is best done in the form of a story.

Ephraim and I went down to Kevin Babington’s for two days of education. He strolled through the barns, hung out in the busy grooming area, and stood in the ring watching others school big jumps, all sans stress.  He walked into his stall and dug into the hay.  “I have a show horse!” I thought.    

When our mini-clinic ended, I took him home and turned him out. I was not expecting the text I got the next morning from Kate. I needed to go and see my horse, something was terribly wrong.

I wasn’t excited, but figured it couldn’t be that bad. I took him out of the stall and was shocked to see that he was staggering sideways. His hind end fell one way and the forelimbs walked as if he was on a tightrope, crossing over in bizarre fashion.

I panicked. I admit it! I immediately diagnosed him with neurological herpes because it was the worst diagnosis I could pick. I’m an excellent veterinarian but NOT for my own animals, ask my friends. I knew he was going to die, that Kate’s would be quarantined, and so would Kevin’s…and he was supposed to depart for Spruce Meadows in three days time! 

Thankfully, with the help of some very supportive people, I rushed his test samples to the state lab in Harrisburg and waited.  And waited.  Nauseously. And thank goodness, the tests were negative. Finally I was able to take a deep breath and start forming a plan.  

His clinical picture changed over the next two days, and I couldn’t decide if he was neurological or severely injured, but I was incapable of assessing him with any objectivity. I considered a broken back, broken pelvis, broken ribs but I couldn’t correlate the bizarre front end to any of those things. So I brought him in to New Bolton Center at my first opportunity.

I worried how he’d mentally handle the visit but my fears were unfounded. Ephraim fell in love with the neurologist, Dr. Amy Johnson. She is very quiet in nature and he immediately started snoodling with her. I was floored. And proud! The more we examined him, the more she realized his bizarre gait, while very abnormal, was also very deliberate.  By the end of the afternoon, his gait had changed significantly, and when we called Dr. Elizabeth Davidson, guru of lameness at NBC, she declared him lame left hind. She jogged him for me and I wanted to cry. He was now broken bone lame, and it was hard to watch. (For the record, I did not cry in front of the students, house officers, and clinicians. Go me!)

I made an appointment for nuclear scintigraphy. The “Answer Machine,” as surgeon Dr. Mike Ross calls it, did not disappoint. Eph had a fractured pelvis. I was actually very relieved.  It will heal with several months of stall rest. Right after the diagnosis, I moved him to a rehab farm behind New Bolton, where owner Nicky Manfredi is famous for her top-notch care. The barn is quiet and the horses in her charge seem to adjust to stall rest immediately. I adore this horse and only want him to be as happy as possible while he heals. I visit him every morning before work, and so far, he’s doing very well.

Want to know the funny epilogue to this story? A month ago, I started looking for another horse to ride while Eph was in full training.  Ephraim is tricky and I needed to be more legged up before I took the reins back from Kate. I’d contacted friend and farrier John Wilkoski, who starts draft crosses to fox hunt. I trust him 1000 percent, and I told him what I needed (EASY!  FUN! NO TRICKS!) and he said that he had the perfect candidate: a green but quiet 4-year-old Belgian/Thoroughbred gelding.  

Sitting on Barry is like sitting astride an overgrown noodle. I rode him over rolling terrain in a huge field and while he had no idea what my body was doing (trust me, I was there and also had no idea what my body was doing), he immediately started trying to figure me out.

Wobbly turn left?  You sure?  Trot?  Or walk?  

As emotional and complex as Eph is, Barry seems levelheaded and simple. We have been calling him Barry Mani-slow. At first I felt as if I was betraying Eph, but the truth is that he and Barry are going to love each other when they eventually meet. I predict that Eph will immediately recruit Barry as his minion. And I hope that, in turn, Barry will provide a stabilizing influence on Eph.

So that’s our story. Cross your fingers for an easy recovery for my buddy. I’m excited that I’ll be ready for him when he is again ready for me!      

Liz Arbittier, VMD, CVA, is an equine field service veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. She also enjoys rescuing elderly shelter dogs and just added Byron, an elderly blind poodle, to her household. Byron joins Virgil, Cybil, Gladys, and Maude (and Liz) in Coatesville, Pa. She grew up riding hunters and breaking babies, rode IHSA in college, and got her start in show jumping before vet school when she took a job riding with and managing Kevin Babington's team. She is currently riding with four-star event rider, Kate Hicks in Cochranville, Pa.

You can read all of Liz's blogs about Ephraim here.

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