Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Veterinary story

Doug wants us to post stories relating to medecine (and he adds in veterinary as a further option). So here's mine--perhaps only slightly related to Veterinary Practice. For all the stories of young horses born in the early morning, or fresh stallions picking fights with mirrors, or horses hung up on fences, this story wanted to be written today, and so here it is. On a second reading, I'm not sure it has anything at all to do with Doug's contest, but there you go.

My aunt had a large Arabian horse breeding farm when I was younger. She focused on older bloodlines, and along the way purchased or leased many older horses. First, their ancestors were "close up" in the pedigree, and second, older breeding stock, due to fertility rates, tend to be a less expensive option. The result of this though was that in the few years that I lived on the property, I had to assist in a number of euthanasias.

Her barn was made up of an old two-story gambrel roofed structure. Off the side was a long aisle she added on in the 1970s. The aisle housed her "Stallion Row." Here were at least ten stallions along the left hand side. To the right were stalls which opened out to paddocks in the back. For the most part they were empty during the day, as the horses would basically hang out in the fresh air. But the stallions were on a pasture rotation wherein every two or three hours a stallion would be led in from his turn out past his cohorts.

It depended on the stallion, of course, but for the most part, each stallion in his stall used this opportunity to rush the door, scream, stamp his feet, and generally display his magnificence to that puny piece of trash daring to walk through HIS territory. (Almost all of it was posturing. I once witnessed a young stallion bust through his unlatched door during one of these tirades, and I've never seen a more confused looking horse as he tried to scurry back home into the safety of his stall.) You'd lead a horse in: much screaming and thundering. You'd lead a new horse out: even more screaming and thundering. And then they'd all settle down to munch hay for a few hours. But it was deafening for a solid twenty minutes.

Up in the old barn my aunt had an aged stallion who was never healthy enough to breed anyone. He was fully white, with a long wavy mane which dripped past his nose. He was going blind, so as you came into his stall he would roll his head to the side and tuck his nose towards his shoulder so he could focus on you. At this movement, his mane would fall almost to his knee. He was small and calm. I never heard him scream, not even to the mares who walked past his window. His teeth had been ground down so long before that he could no longer eat hay, but existed on various alfalfa mashes, traces of which stained his chin and neck a muddy green. His soles had dropped before he ever came to the farm, and his hooves were polished like glass on the underside. With this change, he had lost all traction, so he could only move in a slow shuffling manner, and if he lied down, he had some difficulty getting to his feet. So Karada spent his days warming his back in the paddock just outside his door, drooling green saliva onto his knees, or shuffling around the edges of his stall, looking for the two barn cats which lived with him. About once a week we would try to clean him up, and he seemed to tolerate it, if not fully enjoy the attention. He was a little too proud to be affectionate.

The summer he was 33 he slowly went downhill. But it was hard to tell with him until he quite suddenly, which is the way with older horses, took a significant turn for the worse. He developed "Sand Colic," which is a condition where the horse, eating dirt or sand, fills his belly with grit and is unable to digest food. We started dosing him with Metamucil, which added further smears of bright orange to his chest and chin. Then he stopped walking, and his legs swelled up to hot thick cylinders--you could barely see one front knee.

Our vet had lived on the property while she had been attending veterinary school, and so knew the horses well. We all decided that this horse was never going to "tell" us when he was in pain, and that he was not going to get better. The day came to put him down.

I'd already been through this a number of times, and I would go on to attend more euthanasias after Karada's. In general, you need to get the horse outside the barn if you can, make him comfortable, and give him a lethal injection. The horses don't thrash or carry on, so it's not dangerous to euthanize indoors, but you do need the horse outside once you make this decision. Getting the backhoe to the horse if the horse is inside a 10'x10' stall is a nasty business. Karada's paddock wasn't appropriate due to fencing and gates, so we walked Karada down stallion row.

One stallion, a young one, "chumphed" at him. His neighbor was an older stallion, who squealed once and kicked the wall he shared with the young stallion. Apparently, this means in horse language, "Be still. Karada's passing." Because it took almost a full half hour to shuffle this aged white old man down the aisle into the sun, and not a single horse made a noise the entire time.

I never saw it happen again.

Outside we tried to convince Karada to lie down, but he wouldn't. But he was so small and weak that we eventually levered him to the ground by slowly bending one leg and then another, supporting his weight along his neck and shoulder so as not to bruise him as he went down. And still he wanted to get up, so I sat against his back, leaned over his shoulder and stroked his neck. (For a strong horse, a vital horse, this never would have worked to keep him down, but Karada accepted the signal and stopped trying to roll to his feet.) I was not expecting this, but in this way, I knew the instant he died.

The vet started the injection as soon as we had him down, and I had been stroking his neck. Long stroke from the poll to the shoulder, sweeping under his coarse mane. Pat, pat at the shoulder. Then back to the poll for a long stroke to the shoulder, sweeping under his coarse mane.

On my third sweep under his mane, I patted his shoulder. And then it was meat under my hand. Not his neck, not his hide, but pat, pat on a Sunday Roast to make sure the rosemary and pepper clings to the surface. I stroked again, and knew before I started the path down his neck that he was gone.

I've helped horses into this world, and I've helped them out. For some there was panic or pain, for some just a quiet passing as rain dripped on the roof. But I've never before or since felt death happen in the instant between the end of the first pat and the contact of the second.

I didn't know Karada very well when he was alive. He just lived in that little run-in stall near the stairs. I'm not even sure if I saw a picture of him that I would recognize him, but once he died he stayed with me. He shuffles into my dreams from time to time--usually to tell me that something important is about to happen. I do know that the stallions knew exactly why we walked him past their doors, and I do know that in whatever way they could, they offered him some respect as he passed.


Doug Hoffman said...

Very touching, Suisan. I liked this. It also reminded me of a death, one I haven't talked about yet. I'll write about it later tonight.

Thanks for participating.

CW said...

Aw, crap. *wipes tears* Thank you for sharing.

For something completely different, what has Karada let you know so far? I envy you, btw, for being able to remember your dreams! :)

Suisan said...

Well, I have really symbolic over-the-top dreams which I understand when I wake up, but which take forever to explain to someone else who's not up to date with all my personal imagery.

A lake is to me a symbol of death or I suppose grief (And that's from another dream which would take too long to explain). So, for example, sometimes a conversation will be happening near a lake, and it's just a conversation. But then sometimes I'll look up and see Karada on the other side of the lake and then I'll know that it's THIS KIND of lake in this dream. Oh. OK, better pay better attention to the conversation.

Does any of that make any sense?

I also had a very bizarre dream one time where Bill Bixby came to visit me. I was totally start struck and pleased. And then I was leading Karada, and for no reason Bill Bixby hit him so hard int eh head that he fell over. And I knew that Bill Bixby wasn't there as an "Apple Dumpling Gang" guy but as a threatening "Incredible Hulk" guy. Karada doesn't show up too often, but when he does he's usually there to make me pay attention.

(Now I sound so granola crunchy I can barely stand myself.)

Suisan said...

*Star struck, not "start struck"

have to hire someone to type for me one of thses days...

sxKitten said...

You tell a great story - poignant without being maudlin.

Suisan said...

Why, thank you sxkitten.

Pat Kirby said...

Sigh. Just sigh.

Very nice a "make me sniffly" sort of way.

Suisan said...

Thanks, Pat. Treating and taking care of horses is somehow so much more in-your-face than taking care of a smaller pet.

CindyS said...

Now I'm in love with a horse I never met but then, that happens often. The falling in love with creatures I've never met part.

The first time I was in a room when they put my husband's cat down was so very shocking. At no time did they tell me to put the cat on it's side or anything. Death was instantaneous and his head dropped like nothing I had ever seen. It was later that I decided we had to change vets. Seeing Bunny's head drop like an anvil was just too much. A vet should have the person lay the animal on it's side.

I've gone with friends to have their animals put down and have had to put down another one of our cats. People are shocked that I'm not a mess but by the time we get to the vets, I know we have made the right decision and I believe it's a blessing.


Doug Hoffman said...

Ever think about publishing this story, Suisan? I don't know where you would send it, since I'm not that much into the regular fiction market, but it seems awfully publishable. Too personal, or no?

Suisan said...

I don't think it's too personal, but I'm a bit at a loss to know where to send it. (I guess that's why there are all those magazines dedicated to submission protocols, eh?)

Inspiring that you think so highly of it, Doug.