We got our wish. Earl survived through Christmas! This would not have been possible with out everyone’s positive energy, prayers and support. We owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you.
During the three hour ride to Tryon Equine Hospital, I had no idea whether Earl would even survive the trip. Every thump, rock or knock inside the trailer, I thought he went down. I’d stop to check him frequently at rest areas and off ramps and each time I was surprised to see him still standing there. As we pulled up to Tryon Equine Hospital, I was astonished to find two vet techs waiting to receive us. They had his critical care unit stall door open and immediately expedited his admission. That gave me peace of mind knowing we’d made the right decision to haul him.
The receptionist handed me a form for billing that listed the financial terms of Earl’s stay. They estimated it would be $1,000 in IV fluids a day, plus other critical care support, drugs, tests, labs, x-rays and whatever else. The admittance form also detailed that weekend critical care rates were higher, and owners were only allowed to visit from 9-10 am and 4-5 pm. I handed over my credit card and signed Earl’s life over to their care.
The resident neurologist, Dr. Emilie, began performing an assessment exam. We waited in the lobby for her to come deliver the initial findings. It felt like an eternity. All the while, I kept replaying the horrific scene in my head, over and over and over.
My friend, Terry, who’d made the trip with me, had stepped outside for a call, so when Dr. Emilie found me I was alone. In a soft, delicate voice, she began to explain the immense list of life threatening issues Earl was facing. I could hear her, but not compute the data. Between my brain trauma, fatigue and stress, I became quickly overwhelmed. I held up a shaking hand, gesturing for her to stop. She looked taken aback. I politely asked her to pause a moment, while I got Terry.
“Terry, Dr. Emilie is here,” I said through the opened door. “Would you mind coming to sit in. I’m afraid I’ll forget what she says.”
As Terry settled on the lobby couch next to me, Dr. Emilie started from the top once more.
“We’ve got Earl started on IV fluids and pain medication,” she said. “He’s showing signs of ataxia, which means there’s neurological deficit. His balance is unsteady and there appears to be vision impairment. This may be due to inflammation in the brain, it may be because of the fracture at the C1 or maybe caused by trauma during the event. We will have to watch and see if these symptoms improve over time to really know whether they’re permeant or not.”
I couldn’t help it. The tears began to flow uncontrollably at that point. I choked them back as best I could, so I could hear her.
“The wound on his neck is infected,” Dr. Emilie continued. “Our surgeon, Dr. McDonald, will have a look at him and decide how best to proceed with the wound care and the fracture. Right now, we need to manage his pain and support his kidneys. We ran some labs and his PK values are so high they don’t even register. His lunge sounds are also changed, which means he’s got pneumonia setting in. We’ll get him started on antibiotics and keep him on fluids over the weekend.”
She went on and on painting a bleak picture for Earl. She mentioned the chance of meningitis and said that she’d like to perform a spinal tap to see if there’s any bacteria. She explained that due to his open wound that left the spine exposed, there was risk bacteria made it to his brain. If it did, she said, we’ll have to make some tough decisions on how to proceed forward.
After the consult was through, I sat there dazed – momentarily crippled by fear. I looked at my watch through watery eyes; sniffled. It was around noon, and visitation would not start until 4:00 p.m. I was determined to stay and see him one more time before making the drive home.
“Brittney should be here soon,” said Terry, reading my mind.
Our neighbor’s daughter, Brittney, had graduated from Clemson the day before and wanted to meet us at the hospital. Her mom and dad helped free Earl from the hay feeder the night before and she wanted to see him firsthand. As a pre-vet student, Brittney interned, and presently works for, Charleston Equine Clinic who oversees the health of LowCountry Acres herd. What’s more, she’s a friend and personally knows and cares for Earl.
We had time to burn so once Brittney arrived, we went to the nearby town for lunch and a walk. The town was bustling with smiling, cheerful holiday shoppers. It was Friday for everyone else, but for me it was the last day I’d ever see my beautiful, beloved horse again. In my core, I felt he wasn’t going to survive the ordeal.
I forked food into my mouth, not really tasting it. I pasted a look of optimism on my face that probably looked as disingenuous as it felt. I made small talk even though all I could think about was the night before. Intrusive images of Earl trapped under the hay feeder kept flooding my waking thoughts. Each time, carving a new, deep, raw gash on my psyche. I felt nauseous.
I paid the bill and tipped our waitress generously. She was kind. I needed kind.
We walked around the town’s many antique shops. I felt like I was floating inside a balloon. The sites and sounds around me were muffled, distant, hazy. I was drunk on fatigue and hungover from crying. My head began to pound. My heartbeat drummed loud in my ears.
“Do you mind if we head back to the clinic?” I asked Terry and Brittney.
“Of course,” said Terry, whose worried eyes reminded me that she too hadn’t slept and was equally concerned about Earl.
Upon returning to the hospital, we settled in for a long wait. An hour felt like an eternity. The receptionists would occasionally look up from their computers, but didn’t engage us in conversation. Finally it was 4:05 pm. I’d expected one of the gals at the front desk to invite us back for visitation. They didn’t.
“Should we ask them?” Terry prompted.
I approached the woman at the desk nearest the front door and inquired about visitation. She called to the back and confirmed whether it was feasible for Earl to have guests, then waived us through.
Though sedated and blind, Earl recognized my voice and came to its sound. I stood outside the metal-grated stall front and cooed soothingly to my horse, weeping uncontrollably. I wiggled my fingers and caressed his muzzle, then leaned down and kissed warm whiskers through cold metal bars.
“Hi,” said an approaching voice. “I’m Dr. McDonald. Are you Earl’s owner?”
“Yes,” I said, wiping away tears and mustering what strength I had left.
“I took some rads of Earl’s neck,” said dove right in. “He has a fracture of the C1 and a significant subluxation at the C1-C2 process. There are bone fragments in the wound, but given how infected it is at the moment, I do not want to go in and extricate them. At this point, I think we should concentrate on getting him stable and get that infection under control. Dr. Emilie wants to do the spinal tap on Monday, so it’s best to wait and see the results of that before planning any invasive procedures. Our treatment plans will likely change, based on those test results. In the meantime, I’ve given him some opioids and Banamine to manage his pain so he’s feeling pretty sleepy. You’re welcome to go in and see him. Just be careful.”
Earl had laid down for a nap during our conversation, so Terry, Brittney and I slipped into his stall quietly.
I stroked his back with my fingertips as I approached, as I often did when I found him sleeping in the field first thing in the morning. I sat down at his head and he sniffed me groggily. Seeing him noticeably relax, he then rested his head and went to sleep. We stayed like that until visitation was over.
I hugged his head, kissed his forehead, and told him I’d be back soon.