The weather forecast was for freezing rain and the sky was as gray as my mood. As I drove down the interstate, I found myself in a traffic jam three miles from the stable where I would see my patient, a horse named Pattea.
Normally, I'd have been upset by the traffic now moving at a crawl. But I was in no hurry to arrive. I was on my way to put Pattea to sleep, or as we veterinarians call it, euthanasia.
Eight months ago, Pattea had been stricken with Laminitis. It had progressed slowly but steadily, destroying her feet, or more specifically, the bond between the bone inside each foot and the hoof wall. The owner had done everything she could and I had been advising her on various treatments.
Because I see many cases of Laminitis, her owner sought my opinion as Pattea's condition worsened. At my first visit two weeks earlier, I'd found Pattea bright and alert. But when she moved around her stall she was in great discomfort. Her owner said she'd been lying down more and her coffin bone had penetrated through the sole of one of her feet. New x-rays showed further destruction, with a marked change in the position of the coffin bone within Pattea's feet.
I had told her owner that the best we could hope for would be arresting the destructive process, but that Pattea would most likely be crippled for life and always be in discomfort. After thinking it over, she called me, saying Pattea was doing no better and she had decided to put her 18-year-old friend to sleep. She couldn't bear to watch the horse in pain every day. She asked if I would do the procedure and I agreed.
The traffic thinned and in no time I was at the farm's driveway. As I pulled in, I saw no signs of life. Only a tractor running beside the barn.
A woman greeted me. Her eyes were swollen and red. She was the sister of Pattea's owner. There was no "Good morning" from me, just "Hello." She said Leslie was waiting in the barn with her horse.
I always dread this part of my work. Deciding to put your friend to sleep is a terrible decision to have to make, but if a life of constant suffering is all that lies ahead, what other options do you have?
Pattea's stall was on the right at the end of the aisle. I saw Leslie come out of the stall. I took her hand into both of my own and squeezed tightly.
"Are you okay? Are you ready?" I asked. She replied in a strong voice that she was. We walked out the back of the barn to a snow-covered lot and decided to put Pattea down next to a small pile of shavings, where the tractor could easily scoop her up and place her on the trailer that would transport her the short distance to her grave.
We returned to the barn and Pattea's stall. The small chestnut Arabian mare with large brown eyes was enjoying the extra attention this morning. She had been groomed and fed lots of treats. I asked her to move in her stall and she rocked back on her rear legs to move her front feet. Although Leslie had been giving her extra pain medication, Pattea still moved with great discomfort. Seeing this made me confident that the decision to put her down was the right one. Her feet had been so damaged by Laminitis that recovery was impossible.
I rubbed Pattea's mane and examined her neck. She had a long winter coat, so I decided to clip some of the hair so it would be easy to find her jugular vein. While doing this, I explained to Leslie and her sister what would happen next.
First, I would give Pattea a large dose of tranquilizer. Then I'd give a local anesthetic in the skin and insert a large-bore needle into her vein and rapidly administer the euthanansia solution. I told them to expect the mare to fall down and quickly expire. With the plans in place, I went back to my car to prepare the drugs.
I tried to block all emotion from my mind, reminding myself that I was merely a technician performing an intravenous injection of a drug. There's also a degree of risk to the procedure. You never know how the horse will fall. You hope their knees buckle and they go down easily, but sometimes they bolt forward or fall hard, and you need to be able to get out of the way.
I walked back into the barn, ready to begin. Pattea stood quietly while I clipped the left side of her neck. When I finished, Leslie led Pattea from her stall for the last time, coaxing her with grain one painful step at a time. She only had to go about 30 feet, but it took forever. As we made our way I noticed Leslie had tied her long wool scarf around Pattea's neck. We finally reached the shavings, which were soft and easy on Pattea's aching feet. It was time for me to start.
I gently slid the needle into Pattea's left jugular vein and administered a strong tranquilizer. I waited until she became sleepy before giving the local anesthetic into the skin over the vein.
I quickly administered three 60ml syringes of euthanasia solution, attaching the large-bore needle to the first syringe and thrusting the needle into the jugular vein. The local anesthetic worked beautifully - Pattea never even flinched. I infused the solution and the first syringe emptied. Leaving the needle inserted in the vein, I attached syringe number two. Her blood dribbled from the hub of the needle onto my fingers and froze in the cold air. I attached the third syringe with the rest of the solution.
As I pulled the needle out, Pattea's legs buckled and she gently fell down. I held her head to prevent it from hitting the hard ground. As she lay on her side with her life leaving her body I spoke softly into her ear, "Pattea, you are free to run again."
I stood up and faced Leslie. She was dry-eyed and strong. I'm sure after the burial she would expel her grief, but at that moment she stood proud, and told me not to be upset. We exchanged a long hug and, as her sister clipped a lock of Pattea's mane, Leslie said she was sure her horse was up above us, galloping.
As we opened the barn door, Pattea's best friend, another Arabian, whinnied for her. I told them to take the horse out and let her see and smell Pattea so she would know she was gone. As I started to leave, Leslie's sister reached out and touched my arm.
"You know, we all really like you a lot. Thank you," she said, inferring that was why Leslie had asked me to be the one to put her horse to sleep. I thanked her in return and walked back to the car.
The procedure couldn't have gone better. It was quick, gentle and the mare went down easily. But Laminitis had won again, robbing another beloved horse of its life. As I drove off, I began filing the experience into a corner of my mind, a place I never frequent by accident. It's a part of my life I try never to relive.
But it doesn't matter. I'm forever haunted by the horses who, like Pattea, have lost their lives to Laminitis.
Laminitis claims the lives of thousands of horses and ponies each year and doesn't discriminate in its choice of victims. It can claim the performance horse as quickly as the backyard pony, and is responsible for the premature loss of such greats as the seemingly invincible Secretariat. Please help us find a cure for this terrible disease. The Animal Health Foundation needs your contribution to continue funding laminitis research. You can make a difference. Give today.
The goal of the Animal Health Foundation, www.animalhealthfoundation.com, is to find the cause and prevention for Laminitis-Founder in horses. AHF donates funds for research and helps owners protect their horses from becoming victims of this painful, crippling disease. AHF grant recipients include: Dr. Chris Pollitt, U. of Queensland, Australia; Dr. Phil Johnson, U. of Missouri; Dr. Steve Adair, U. of Tennessee; and Dr. John Betram, Cornell U. Because the AHF board of directors personally pays all administrative costs for its all-volunteer, not-for-profit organization, donations from the public go directly to fund Laminitis-Founder research. Donations are tax-deductible and can be sent to Animal Health Foundation, 3615 Bassett Road, Pacific MO 63069, (639) 451-5249.