The benefit of the doubt

This day is a day of thanksgiving for us. One year ago, Scooter underwent surgery to remove a huge abscess from his abdomen. Thousands of dollars later, and having had Scooter away from us for over two months following his surgery, the young man is doing just fine, thank you, and had a wonderful summer of mountain riding.

On Feb. 11 of last year, Earl found Scoot lying sternal (on his chest) in an unusual place-by the water trough. We got him up, and Earl noticed that Scoot gave one small kick of his hind leg. This means abdominal pain. We gave him a physical and called the clinician on call. We held off on taking him in to the hospital.

In the morning, I drew blood from Scoot, and delivered it to the CSU lab. In the meantime, we made an appointment to take him in. We didn’t want to wait. As it turned out, being worried horse owners saved his life. A rectal examination revealed a mass the size of a watermelon near the root of the mesentery, the place where the small intestines fan out and are connected by mesentery, a Saran Wrap-like membrane filled with blood vessels and lymph nodes.

The rule outs from an intrarectal ultrasound were an abscess, most likely from the strangles bacterium, Streptococcus equi, or a mass, probably cancer. A cancer that large was not something I was willing to treat, it would have been too advanced. The clinicians at the hospital, Dr. Lutz Goehring, Dr. Gabriele Landolt, and surgeon Dr. Diana Hassel all thought it looked like an abscess. Knowing the cost involved, but the prognosis if it were to be an abscess, we were willing to give Scoot the benefit of the doubt. Surgery was on for 8 the next morning. I insisted on watching, as if it turned out to be a malignancy, Scooter was not to be recovered, and I would perform the euthanasia on my sleeping boy.

The surgery went well. The experts were correct. It was an abscess. I remember Dr. Goehring running samples to the lab so we could find out that it indeed was bastard strangles. Dr. Hassel performed the surgery aided by first-year resident Dr. Annette McCoy. They got over a liter of pus from the abscess which they believe was an infected lymph node right at the root of the mesentery. They never opened the abscess, that would have killed him. They carefully tied a suture into the abscess wall, inserted a trocar into the abscess, tighened the suture and suctioned off the pus. Then they closed the purse-string suture, so nothing was spilled. They flushed his abdomen, gave massive antibiotics, then took him to the recovery stall. I took pictures of the surgery. Dr. Hassel was elbow-deep in my paint’s belly.

I observed Scoot by TV monitor until he had awakened and could stand. My former workmate at the VTH, Lucien Brevard, a calm surgery and anesthesia tech who had once shod our mares long ago, watched the monitor carefully. It was comforting being with Lu as I saw Scoot come to his senses and try to stand. 

When Scoot recovered from anesthesia, he went directly to the isolation barn, as strangles is highly contagious. His progress was monitored by TV with the staff and student assigned to him the only ones allowed into his stall.

How did he get this serious disease? I really have no idea. Hannah’s pneumonia the previous month may have been strangles pneumonia, but when S. equi is cultured, other bacteria quickly overgrow it. Her bacteriology report said, “mixed flora.” It is strange that both horses were so ill within a short interval of each other. Neither horse had been off our place in over three months. Our neighbor, the only other horse owner for miles, had no diseased horses. It’s a mystery that will never be solved.

We were so fortunate to have a wonderful senior student, Shawn Dixon, take care of Scoot. Only once did we ‘suit up’ to visit him in isolation. It was quite the process of biohazard protection. It took so much of her time, that we decided to visit from outside his window. Today, Dr. Shawn Dixon is an intern at Colorado Equine. After Scoot had three negative cultures for strangles, and a negative endoscopic examination of his gutteral pouches, he was moved back into the regular barn. We had open access to him, as long as we suited up for the barn, a much less difficult procedure than for isolation. We walked him, hung out with him and generally loved on him. He was such a wonderfully behaved patient. 

When time for release came, he had to have stall rest and hand walking. This means a closed stall, and graduated exercise by hand. This was not possible in our set up. Scoot went up to the care of Barbara Struthers, a quarter horse breeder and mother of one of the night technicians, Kit Struthers, who had taken care of both Scoot and Hannah. Barb spoiled him rotten. Scoot couldn’t get enough food, as he had lost over 50 pounds. Barb introduced him to horse cookies. She hand walked him in increments, eventually going out for hour and a half jaunts. She told me that he was only the second horse she had ever boarded that she trusted to be in the stall when she cleaned it daily. Scoot also became friends with her pot-bellied pig, Brad Pigg. Brad is hysterical to watch, but he did try to bite me when I wanted to touch his tusk. This reminded me that no matter how small, pigs can be truly vicious. Scoot, always keen for a pretty girl, fell in love with the cute little filly across the aisle. Poor guy, he was gelded when he was two, but still loses his heart to the mares. I call him “Studly Can’t Do Nuthin’.” Hannah is his true love, though.

After he was in better shape, Barb or Kit would train him in their round pen. Kit can work on any horse. His quiet, calm demeanor allows the horse to feel calm. We got our horse back in good shape to try riding in late May, and groomed like a show horse. The warmer barn allowed him to shed his winter coat faster than if he had been outside at home.

A  mid-April snowstorm delayed Scooter’s homecoming for a few days. We hugged and kissed Barb and thanked her for helping to save Scooter. Hannah awaited in the trailer so Scoot would load without trouble. He settled back into his corral after his long stay at the equine version of the Hyatt Regency. We thought he felt he was now slumming it.

Economics is a very real consideration in the world of veterinary medicine, more now in this depression than ever. I came very close to euthanizing my boy not because of cost, but because he may have had a non-survivable cancer. All Scoot has to show of his ordeal is a marble-sized incisional hernia. I check it every time I pet him. It causes no problem, and would be easy to fix if it did.

Had we done nothing, we probably would have awakened to find a dead horse in our corral. Earl’s keen eye on that subtle kick lead to Scooter’s cure.

Every morning when I feed the horses, every time I ride Scootsritealong,  give him a horse cookie, (yes, I gave in) or laugh at how goofy he is, I thank the Almighty that we gave our boy the benefit of the doubt.

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