by Dayla Hepting
I am employed as a keeper of horses. Every morning at six a.m. I commute down to the valley floor from my ridge top above Philo and then up again to another ridge top near Navarro. We have enough stalls for thirty horses and no matter how many horses are at the track we seem to always have the right amount to fill the stalls. We raise race horses, Thoroughbred race horses. Not all of them will be race horses, of course, because some will not have the ability, some will not have the will, and some will simply not have the desire to run, maxed out, around a track with a bunch of maniacs screaming at them from the stands.
Spring is the best time for us. Spring is foaling time. I have no interest in human babies, who strike me as whiney, smelly little slugs, but horse babies are another story. And, of course, you can lock them in a stall and forget about them for a while, unlike the human variety who must be watched constantly.
At four p.m. on May 15th, we (meaning my right hand man Colleen and myself) went to bring in the mares for Foal Watch. That means they spend the night in a big heavily bedded stall on each side of the tack room. We have observation windows on each wall so we can get up at night and see how they are doing. We also use a chemical test of the calcium content of the mare's milk that would tell us if we are likely to have a foal that night.
End-to-End stayed in the pasture. She is a chestnut with a white crooked blaze. She stands about 16 hands. She was at that time hugely pregnant. She was four weeks away from her likely foaling date so there was no reason to bring her in, so we thought. But End-to-End saw it differently. She stood at the gate and nickered every time I walked by. "Take me," She said, "I'm going to have a baby." Now End-to-End is our oldest (17) and best (most winning foals) brood mare, so when End-to-End has something to say you must at least listen. She was a pro at this baby business when I was still an aging Death Rocker in the City and never dreamed I'd get any closer to a horse than the eighth row from the screen in a Sam Shepard movie. To humor her, we bedded her a stall and brought her in. Then, as an afterthought, we gave her a milk test, just to prove once and for all that she was a silly old thing and wouldn't be popping anything out anytime soon.
Modern chemistry assured us that within ten hours, indeed, End-to-End would have a foal on the ground.
Colleen called her boyfriend Norman and invited him to the birth, which for horse people is a great honor to bestow upon others. Norman had little interest in horses (so probably did not feel honored), but if he wanted to see Colleen he would have to come to the barn. She was not coming home. He agreed to come up and take some pictures.
A little after midnight End-to-End broke her water and the birth started. We saw the little feet and then his nose perched on top of his ankles. When his shoulders emerged I pulled the birth sack away from his nostrils. His lips and tongue were blue. He wasn't getting enough oxygen. Then the foal, instead of flopping out, which was normal, appeared to be curling forward, almost somersaulting. End-to-End was straining fiercely but he was not coming out. What is usually a last easy push to get the buttocks out was not happening. He was not moving. This is called hip-lock, we learned later. It happens when a foal is too large. The hip becomes locked into the pelvis bone of the mare. We called the clinic to get a vet. Abruptly End-to-End stood up and the front half of the foal's body dangled there briefly until I was released from my stunned immobility. Then I grabbed him and tried to support his weight while she paced around. While he had been hanging there unsupported, we did not realize it, but his weight had snapped the umbilical cord, so he was no longer receiving oxygen from the mother, nor was he breathing.
Finally her movements dislodged his hips and we lowered him to the ground. We still did not realize for several more minutes that the umbilical cord was not attached. We did know, however, that we had a scary situation. Dr. Mort Cohen was on his way, but even if he jumped straight from his bed to the car he could not be at the barn for at least an hour from our original call. By the time we figured out that this foal had no heartbeat we were still a half hour away from having a qualified medical person on the scene.
We were in luck that night (although we questioned our luck later on). We had Norman. He is the son of a local vintner who also has sheep, and over the years those sheep have occasionally needed CPR. Norman knew how to give CPR to animals. He took charge. Instead of taking photos that night he ended up on the floor breathing into the nostrils of a lifeless foal. While the rest of us ran around wringing our hands in near hysteria, he took charge and organized us into a life support system. After what seemed like forever, the foal took a few feeble breaths on his own and his heart started up. By the time Dr. Cohen got there it was racing at such a high rate we thought he would die of cardiac arrest. His body was rigid, his limbs were outstretched at odd angles, but he never moved a muscle.
Dr. Cohen is an incredible man. He is about 45 years old, short, dark beard, unbelievably kind, with always a twinkle of erudite amusement in his eyes. He is clearly more intelligent and well-read than the average person. He is an anti-nuclear activist and, in my opinion, a first-class veterinarian. He does not lose his cool. He always thinks problems through; he never makes a rash decision and if he does not have an answer he is quick to say so.
That night I saw no twinkle in Mort Cohen's eyes. He was tired, of course; we had gotten him out of bed, but it was more than that. There was despair in his eyes as he knelt beside our baby. We were hopeful, you see. We made him breathe again. We knew he had a way to go, of course, but we thought things were looking better than they did an hour before.
Dr. Cohen set up some IVs. He gave us all kinds of medications, antibiotics in massive doses, plus tons of injectable sedatives. The foal had suffered brain damage. He would begin severe convulsions within a few hours. He would be difficult to control. He would be blind for sometime, hopefully not forever. He would not know how to nurse. He would be unable to stand, walk, get up or lie down. He would need 24 hour care (by that he meant someone needed to stay in the stall with him 24 hours a day, seven days a week). He needed DMSO IVs every eight hours to control the swelling of his brain. He needed to be fed every four hours through a tube that was permanently installed in his nose. He needed to be turned over every few hours to keep his lungs from filling with liquid. He needed to be massaged all over every two hours and his limbs stretched and manipulated to try to stimulate him.
He would probably show no signs of life for some time, except for violent convulsions that could be dangerous to him if he hit the walls, or to us if we got hit by flying hooves or crushed underneath him (which of course we were, many times). He was a baby but he weighed one hundred pounds so he could be a hazard. An IV was stitched into his neck so we could give him sedatives, DMSO and electrolytes. Pads were taped to his head to keep him from damaging his eyes when he slammed his head around. Dr. Cohen would come twice a day for a while. In a week or two we would see some improvement, according to the textbooks, and in a few months he would be almost normal if he survived. The recovery would be one hundred percent, if it occurred.
That sounded hopeful to us but I knew Mort Cohen very well and I saw no hope in the eyes of a man I considered to be basically an optimist. As he packed his equipment up he said, "Well, at least with this type of thing, if he makes it, you will know it is because of you that he makes it." It seemed a strange comment so when he went to his truck I walked with him. Finally I asked him what I thought was the core of it, "If we do all this, what are his chances of surviving?"
He said, "thirty percent is the best you can hope for and the trouble is you are going to put in so much time and energy before you know if he will make it."
Thirty percent! It was like getting smacked in the belly with a baseball bat. So we got him breathing again so he could die in squalid misery a week later? I wished that colt dead then. It wasn't the only time in the month that followed that I wanted that baby dead, I can guarantee you.
It was Colleen and I, basically, who would have to take on this burden. It would be twelve hour shifts everyday. We could expect occasional breaks from the rest of the crew, but most of the work was for the two of us. We would have to invest two hundred percent into a project which was essentially hopeless. After Mort left at four a.m. and we got a closer look at our patient in the cold light of dawn, it certainly looked hopeless. But there was no turning back. In truth, it was our fault this pathetic little creature was lying there comatose and breathing. He would have been peacefully dead if we had not intervened. He was our monster, our little Frankenstein, alive and brain-dead due to our heroic efforts. Now we had to make him whole or at least we had to make every effort to do so.
I called the big boss and told him the situation. He said if we were willing to do the work he was willing to foot the bills, which would be enormous before we were done with vet and medications. If the horse survived our names would be on his ownership papers filed at the Jockey Club.
End-to-End stood in a corner staring at us morosely. She obviously thought we were idiots. Her baby was dead.
We turned the stall into a sort of bunker, stacking bales of hay against the wall to cushion the baby. We made ourselves beds with sleeping bags and propped the turnip between bales beside us so he could breathe. He kept falling down and we kept dragging him back up. We created our own little IC Unit. Every few hours we lifted him up and put him on his feet. His legs just dangled lifelessly but we cradled him and moved his legs in walking patterns. We had Deborah McDaniels, an Equine Masseuse from the Coast, come over and teach us how to effectively massage him to stimulate his nerve endings.
Then one night while Colleen was alone in the stall he suddenly got to his feet by himself. I arrived at dawn to find an exhausted little turnip standing with his legs wide apart and his nose almost touching the floor. Colleen said he had been like that all night. He got up but couldn't get down. He had gained a hundred pounds since birth so Colleen was unable to lift him off his feet. She was afraid to knock him down for fear of hurting him, so he stood there all night.
That day we knew we would have a Norman. We had decided he would be a turnip as long as he was brain dead, because he really was only a vegetable, not a horse. It was self-defense. We wanted to distance ourselves. After all, nobody gets emotional about turnips do they? Of course we were, in spite of all that, hopelessly in love with our little turnip. If he moved an eyelid we went into states of ecstatic triumph, only to crash into despair an hour later when blood appeared in his feces because he had developed ulcers from the antibiotics he was on.
That morning his name became Tur-Nor. Eventually he would be Norman (named for his rescuer) but for now we hedged our bet and went for half turnip, half Norman.
When he stood up, End-to-End saw that there was hope. She nickered and ran to him to breathe in his nose. Of course he did not respond, but she knew that we were not so silly after all. She had a foal. In the days that followed, often I would wake up to find her standing over us breathing gently on my face as I held Norman in my arms to keep his head elevated. She would be watching with such a look of love and hope that it was scary, the amount of faith she now had in us.
I can not begin to tell you in this short space all that happened during that time. We smelled awful, I can tell you that. The DMSO was saving his life but it was also saturating his pores, his breath and his feces. His whole body exuded this horrible heavy odor and finally so did we. The bedding was saturated. The walls, our skin, our clothes, our hair all smelled. It was nauseating. I pride myself on having a cast iron stomach and even I was sick of that smell.
Norman made steady progress for awhile. He learned to make turns instead of walking in place at a corner in the wall, like a battery-powered toy soldier when it hits the sofa. He learned to nurse a little; he drank milk out of a pail. He expressed interest in things. He could see. He started to say no and throw little tizzy fits over his meds.
And then he had a seizure and went into a coma. It was god-awful. The vet came. This time it was Paul Michaelson. Paul said it was probably hopeless. Later he told me he wouldn't have given a plug nickel for Norman's chances of making it through the night. He gave me a syringe and said, "Use this if you need to. If it doesn't kill him it will at least allow you to control him 'til I can get here and put him down." Norman's convulsions were worse than ever. I spent the night literally on top of him trying to hold him down. When he woke up he knew less than he ever had. He could no longer even remember how to swallow. After Paul left that night I flung myself down on the floor of the stall and I sobbed and screamed at the top of my lungs. All hope was gone. I could not go on for another hour. I absolutely could not go through all this and have that little son of a bitch die on me now. All of a sudden I was lifted up gently by a nose under my belly and shoved to the side. In my despair I had blocked End-to-End's path to her bran mash and she had simply moved me out of the way. I watched her feet clip by a half inch from my nose and I started laughing.
"You take yourself way too seriously, girl," End-to-End had said, "Go get yourself a bowl of Granola." So I did.
Norman made it. In 3 months he was out in pasture, a regular guy, a normal foal, except for the strange fur patches on his hips and shoulders where his bed sores had been. And if you watch him carefully you will see that there is a wisdom to Norman, a sort of understanding that is beyond his age. He has a self-confidence that is neither cocky nor immature as it often is in young horses. Norman has a quiet intelligence. He is a problem solver and he is watchful. He doesn't quite know what hand life will deal him. He is the leader but he is not a bully. Maybe these are the qualities that made it possible for Norman to be alive today, or maybe he developed those qualities through his ordeal. I can not say. Certainly Norman wanted to live and he worked hard to do it. To this day he still remembers his leg stretches which were taught to him when he was considered no more than a pile of flesh, which means he was there fighting long before we realized he was there.
Before it was done Norman was considered a miracle baby. His story and pictures went to Europe with a visiting vet training under Dr. Kerry Ridgeway (a highly respected practitioner of Acupuncture for Equines) who worked on realigning Norman's neck and spine after it was crumpled in his many falls and collisions with the walls.
Evidently what we did with this foal was unique outside of a hospital setting, and his survival was something of a surprise.
I do know that there are a handful of people around here whose eyes mist over whenever they see Norman's quizzical, amused little face. The whole team at Ackerman Clinic in Ukiah. Each of those vets had to save his life at least once and, of course, the rest of us who held him in our arms night and day for 30 days last spring.
Whether he ever wins a race doesn't matter much to us. He won a great fight.
Of course, we all still think he'll win The Triple Crown. He has the blood lines, the mind and the will. If he doesn't, we'll just fight over who gets to take him home.
Copyright © 1997 by Dayla Hepting
Dayla Hepting lives in Mendocino County, California, and is a regular contributor to the weekly Anderson Valley Advertiser. Her book Time Runs will be published by Electron Press in the first quarter of 1998.
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