When the ringing phone woke me at 6:30 am, the name on the caller ID display instantly cleared the fog from my brain. The owner of my horse’s boarding facility wouldn’t be calling just to chat, not at that early hour. Her message was one I had hoped to never hear: “Your horse is colicking.”
I rushed to the barn, the veterinarian a few minutes behind me. Kosi was in serious pain, and it quickly became apparent that his problem couldn’t be resolved at the farm. I hurriedly made arrangements to trailer him to the Peterson Smith Equine Hospital in Ocala. As I followed behind the rocking trailer, watching my horse struggle in obvious distress. I was terrified but grateful that a world-class equine hospital was so close by. Plus Kosi’s supplement supplier would cover the cost of expensive colic surgery, leaving one less thing for my frantic, overwhelmed mind to deal with.
Faith Hughes, DVM, DACVS, met us at the hospital, her manner professional and caring as she assessed my horse and his obvious high level of pain. If Kosi had a chance at survival, his only option was surgery.
The only option
I approved the surgery, still in shock that my boy, my partner of ten years, the horse who had helped me deal with my own medical distress, was now suffering. I quickly accepted the opportunity to view the surgery, I quickly accepted. Sitting in a pleasant waiting room on a comfortable sofa was not an option. I needed to know what was happening and to be there. I had made a promise.
Many years earlier, I had taken the coward’s way out when my beloved dog was dying. I opted to not be in the room when the vet ended her life. I opted out of easing her journey across the Rainbow Bridge. It was a decision I’ve regretted for 40 years. So I made my angel dog a promise. I promised her I would be there when future four-legged family members made that final crossing. I’ve kept that promise with three cats, one other dog, and a horse that died of liver failure. The outcome of the surgery was far from certain, but I hoped and prayed that Kosi wouldn’t die. I owed him my presence, even if there was a window between us. Was he aware of my vigil? I hope he was, but what mattered most was that I was there.
The vigil begins
I sat in front of the observation window, grateful that my friend and trainer sat beside me. We waited while they prepped him, while they hoisted him onto the operating table, while they draped him, while they cut him open. I prayed, hoped and wished. It didn’t matter that this was the year we were finally going to crack third level in dressage. That this was the year I was finally going to get the remaining two scores for my U.S. Dressage Foundation Bronze Medal. None of that was important. I just wanted him to live.
We watched while they examined multiple feet of intestine, although I was grateful that an attending veterinarian blocked some of my view. Finally, Dr. Hughes came to the door. She had earlier explained that at Kosi’s age, 20, there was a good chance a stran-gulating lipoma was the cause of his colic. Now she confirmed her earlier, tentative diagnosis. A lipoma (fatty tumor) had wrapped itself around Kosi’s intestine, strangling it. The surgeons removed five feet of dead intestine. Another 10-foot section was still working, but a bit angry.
Unfortunately, this separate section was not a candidate for removal—not with any serious chance for survival. I made the decision, taking the only real option. I approved removal of the five feet of dead intestine, knowing there were no guarantees and hoping the other section would be healthy. Only time would tell.
I watched and I waited—and the clock inched forward.
After more than three hours of surgery, they rolled my boy into a padded room. There, he would wake slowly from the sedation and stand on his own timetable. With the immediate danger over, and aware that his waking could take anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours, I drove home.
Successful colic surgery
I had been warned that the following morning Kosi would feel like he’d been hit by a truck. I arrived at the hospital with few expectations. He was alive, that was all that mattered. I prepared myself to see him attached to an intravenous drip and standing in the corner of his stall with his head down. What I saw was quite different. Yes, he was attached to an IV line and wearing bright blue ice boots to prevent laminitis, but he was bright-eyed. A few minutes later I snapped a picture of Kosi gazing intently around him as we took a short walk around the hospital grounds. He certainly didn’t look like a horse who had five feet of intestine removed less than 24 hours earlier!
My sweet boy became the poster child for successful colic surgery—the horse that the veterinary staff could point out to other worried owners. Proof that, although there are no guarantees, colic surgery could be a success.
Seven days later I took him home. Now it was time for me to take care of him, as he’d done for me—to give him my strength and comfort as he’d done for me a couple of years earlier during my battle with breast cancer. For two weeks I took him on long, peaceful walks in the fields, punctuated with plenty of grazing time. He graduated to limited turnout in a small paddock, followed by full nightly turnout next to his buddy. Progress.
If all goes well, we will slowly return to the level of training that one day might still get us to that bronze medal. If so, it will be the proverbial icing on the cake. We’ve both already trotted down life’s centerline and achieved so much more than a ribbon or a medal. We’re survivors.
To read about Rita Boehm’s recovery from cancer, go to “My Therapist Eats Hay.”
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