A Day In The Life With: Liz Arbittier, Large Animal Vet And Small Dog Enthusiast

Jan 31, 2020 - 8:00 AM

In the Chronicle’s new series, we follow various equine professionals throughout a typical day. In this installment, we asked veterinarian and occasional Chronicle blogger Liz Arbittier to take us to work with her.

Liz is an assistant professor in the clinical equine field service at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. 

Preface to my day: The most important fact about me, beyond my veterinary work, is that I run a special-needs dog hospice/networking service. It’s currently called Hospice Pet (please please follow us on Facebook), but we are days away from receiving our 501(c)(3) designation as an official nonprofit! The name will be changing to HAARBOR, which stands for Helping Ailing Animals Receive Best Options for Rescue. I can’t talk about my day without mentioning it, as it’s a huge part of my life!

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Liz Arbittier’s canine family. Photos Courtesy Of Liz Arbittier

This is the “staff” of Hospice Pet, aka my current canine family. We tell Nigel he’s the president, but the truth is that Florence is the brains of the operation. Potato is obviously the comic relief! Pixie brings the sweetness, and Mr. Wilson is security. He has no mandible, but he is fierce, and he will gum you to death.

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When you have elderly dogs with mobility challenges, of course your house needs a two-story dog ramp!

5 a.m. Alarm goes off, and it’s time to get started. There is a lot of housework involved in running a dog hospice! I start by moving towels from the washer to the dryer (I do two or three loads of towels per day, sometimes doing it overnight), feed and medicate the crew, then get to cleaning. Our whole living area is “carpeted” in towels over a vinyl floor. This gives them traction and takes care of any accidents that happen while I’m gone. I collect dirty towels,  sweep and vacuum the whole floor prior to mopping and drying, and put down fresh towels. It’s a lot, but I’m really efficient, and it is a terrific system in terms of giving them a great quality of life but also keeping it so clean that it never smells!

My favorite thing about my house is the two-story handicapped dog ramp out the back. The dogs love it! Hard to get a good photo, and this is a re-enactment because it was too dark when we went out for the first time. Before I leave, there’s some playtime on the floor, and then I quickly upload today’s special-needs dog onto the Hospice Pet Facebook page. Now I have to boogie or I’ll be late!

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6:45 a.m. Get to my barn. I rent a perfect barn from Carol Davidson—in days past, she was a boss in the world of eventing and now has a son who is doing pretty well for himself; you’ve probably heard his name once or twice. She is an absolute doll and has welcomed my strange herd of horses and weird barn hours with open arms.

My herd has a cozy stone barn, tons of shelter and a massive field, and they’re just 5 minutes from the hospital. I may be a vet, but I’m still mucking stalls every day—and I love it. Mucking slows my brain and puts me in a nice, zen place. I’m a big fan of listening to podcasts while mucking—particularly true crime podcasts that always make me feel like I’m about to be murdered no matter where I am, but I just can’t break my addiction to them. Please don’t ever sneak up behind me; I may assume you’re a serial killer!

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My current group of horses is unique. I have two elder Appaloosas that I unexpectedly inherited when a client of mine passed away suddenly. Then there’s the biggest curmudgeon in the county, Buddy. It’s not the most physically impressive group, but I love them. I love them even though this is how Buddy interacts with me essentially all the time. I know he loves me deep down inside. Very deep, apparently.

Day in the life 15Here are Roo and her mom Crescent (in the background).  Crescent is 27 and totally blind, but she does amazingly well.  Since they moved to this huge field, Roo wears bells to help Crescent navigate.

8 a.m. Arrive at work and start packing the vet truck. I am an assistant professor on the Penn Vet New Bolton Center’s very busy Equine Field Service team. I spend most of my days traveling from farm to farm, working on horses and teaching students who get to observe and sometimes participate. I also do a little didactic teaching, serve on committees, act as faculty advisor to the equine students, and have a lot of other responsibilities far beyond strict vet work. It’s a lot, but I love it!

One big surprise for me when I moved from private practice to New Bolton was how most of our clients love having our students around because then they get to participate in the teaching and learning. Half the time, my clients are feeding my students the right answers, and I have to forbid them from playing, which cracks us up. Most horse owners want to be educated and love participating in the discussions.

Today there are no hospital rounds, so I head right to my first call at Hilltop Farm, a large warmblood breeding and dressage training facility. I am their regular veterinarian, and because it’s such a large operation (75-95 horses, depending on the season), I spend a minimum of two days per week there. A significant part of my job satisfaction is derived from enjoying the people for and with whom I work. I deeply believe that life is too short and this job is too hard to be unhappy, so if I’m not smiling and laughing through my day, I’m probably not having a good day. The people at this farm are terrific, and it’s a stimulating mix of working on elite-level athletes one minute then maybe a neonate the next. Fun and challenging!

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9 a.m. I have to start my visit with the vital task of snoodling a sleeping baby horse. The funniest part of this photo is that you can’t see the four 2-year-olds lurking immediately behind me, trying to see what’s going on. Not super safe but who can resist?

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Checking the healing progress on an injury with Hilltop’s assistant trainer, Jessica Fay (right).

Then I get down to business and perform an ultrasound recheck of a leg on a horse that’s rehabbing. Looking great! That’s Hilltop’s assistant trainer Jessica Fay. She can read the scans before I even open my mouth. This is kind of a good thing because my clients will tell you that when I’m scanning, I unconsciously have an angry expression, and people always panic that I’m finding bad things… I constantly have to tell them, I promise, that’s just my face!! Jess’ winter hat game here is on point, and you can’t see it, but her socks have pictures of otters in love. I’m in 20 layers and snowpants and look permanently disheveled. I am jealous of people who manage winter without looking like a rabid Yeti.

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Talking shop with farrier Kirk Groves (right).

I complete a bunch of routine work, including vaccines and rechecks, and have a meeting with farrier Kirk Groves. Working with other service professionals is one of my favorite parts of the job. New Bolton Center sits right in the heart of three-day eventing country—literally you could throw a rock and hit three Olympians and seven five-star riders if you were a mean sort who enjoyed hitting people with rocks. This means that we have some of the top farriers in the world in our area. I’m spoiled! Kirk and I chat about any horses who may need a team effort, and I love picking his brain. I learn something every day in this job and am never afraid to ask questions. I’ve been doing this job for 19 years and probably ask more questions now than I did many years ago.

12:30 p.m. I wrap up at Hilltop and head back to New Bolton Center. I drive down to one of our research barns where they house research horses, who are vital in the development of new technologies dedicated to keeping the equine industry as honest as possible and its athletes as safe as it can. It’s pretty awe-inspiring to see the results of the work that they accomplish, and I enjoy my tiny part in helping them care for the horses. These horses live the good life and don’t even know that they are contributing to such important work!

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Here I am working with my resident, Dr. Emily Rule, to ensure that this guy is sound and happy. The sky over our colic ICU is definitely ominous and forboding (that’s foreshadowing in case I didn’t adequately hit you over the head with it).

 

Day in the life 18A quick eyeball check on another horse before I go onto emergency call for the night. The weather forecast has me a little nervous! I’d love to get home and feed my dogs before emergencies start coming in.

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I decide to run up to the main hospital to quickly review some radiographs in our radiology suite. One of the major perks of working here is having such an incredible group of humans available for brain squeezing. Here, Dr. David Levine, Dr. Chelsea Klein and Dr. Kara Brown and I all look at some radiographs that were a little controversial. We like to debate, and our collaborative nature of working together always yields better results for our patients. Love it!

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5 p.m. I hustle back to get a little work done at my desk. Yes, that yard sale is my desk. I currently share a tiny office with my work-roomie and Field Service Associate Dr. Meagan Smith, and to say it’s “cozy” is an understatement. It’s a good thing we get along so well! New Bolton, I promise that at some point, I will redecorate and put up lots of professionally framed, serious-looking certificates and things. Until then, my desk is plastered with photos of my dogs.

We are in mid-January and thus are right in the heart of vet school admissions season. I’ve been on the Penn Vet admissions committee for many years, and I love it! It means about 400 pages of reading that I am assigned two days before every interview day, so I have to squeeze it in whenever I can. One thing I really wish I had was more time at my computer to work, research, write lectures and answer emails. But there are only 24 hours in a day!

6:30 p.m. And now the weather hits. A lovely ice storm just as it’s getting dark! Ugh, I hate driving around in the ice. Chester County is hilly and curvy with narrow little roads. I am ready to head home when I get a text from a wonderful client and friend about a pastern laceration. All I could think was that I hoped it was a front pastern… there are few things that are more dangerous than suturing a hind pastern in a standing horse. I am physically and metaphorically very attached to my teeth, and I’d like to keep it that way!!

Day in the life 13Here’s the photo I receive. Hard to tell the extent of the damage other than that it’s just below the fetlock joint and definitely hit some kind of bleeder. My gut says that it looks suspiciously like a hind leg, but I firmly tell my gut to shut up.

I grab my fourth year student, and we cautiously drive to the barn. It is MISERABLE out. Dark and icy and freezing. We unload all of my stuff into the barn, and I ask them to bring out the horse. I’m praying as it walks out that it’s a front leg but nope, hind leg. Sorry teeth! We get everything all set up and are just about to start when we realize that a gate has failed in the storm, and there are about 20 loose horses marauding around the farm in the pitch black, during this ice storm! We could hardly even walk in it let alone effectively chase horses!

My student and I look at each other, put the horse away, grab halters, and join the three people out there trying to round up horses. It was really awful, but awful in that way where you just have to laugh and know that you’re all in it together. I was so glad we were there to be able to help. We collect all of the escapees eventually and are soaked to the skin and frozen. My hair is a solid sheet of ice! My student and I get into my truck and run the heater full blast to try to defrost. I can hardly move my fingers let alone think about doing surgery. Why did I choose to stay in Pennsylvania again? Bleh.

About eight minutes later, we head back into the barn to our waiting patient. My student still had a bounce in her step and a smile on her face! I either wanted to give her an A and hire her, or suck out some of her energy like a tired, middle-aged vampire.

Day in the life 10I sedated, clipped, blocked, probed and scrubbed up the horse to see that, other than location, the wound would be very amenable to repair.

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You can see in the photo, I’ve just started the procedure, and I have already dropped my forceps. *sigh* Cold fingers are the absolute worst.

It comes together beautifully, and I am filled with satisfaction, which always helps your aching back when you finally stand up from doing a procedure like this. I’d prefer to be filled with Advil, but satisfaction is good too. I’m 5’10” and curling into a pretzel to repair something safely in a standing horse where you are never 100 percent sure that they won’t feel the next needle (and then kick you in the face), well, it makes you tense.

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Voila!  We stick a wrap on her, go over instructions, gratefully load ourselves back into the truck, and head back to the hospital.

9:30 p.m. I want to hug my student to pieces, but I remind myself that not everybody is a hugger, and I let her go with some hot chocolate. I head to my barn to bring my horses in, grateful that they were at the barn and not 30 acres away, then go home.
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My pups are so happy to see me, as I am pretty late. That always makes me feel bad for them, but they don’t hold a grudge, and I can’t do much to rectify it! This isn’t a great photo but I love seeing them when I walk in the door. You can barely see little Potato in the background, so I labeled him.  He kills me.

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10:15 p.m. Everybody gets fed and loved on, I put my first load of towels in the washer, and then I collapse onto my sofa to get some Hospice Pet work done. I can barely keep my eyes open, but I’m behind and must catch up. Luckily I have good company. Pixie is ladylike and doesn’t like to be part of the pile. Nowhere to easily put my laptop, but I wouldn’t trade it.

11 p.m. I can’t keep my eyes open any longer; I’m exhausted and frankly my ideal bedtime is around 9:30 p.m. We all head to bed, say a quick prayer that the pager stays quiet for the night, and get ready to do it again tomorrow!

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