Thursday, October 18, 2007

Article: Buzz's surgery

Buzz walking with vet students down the halls of the Texas A&M Large Animal Hospital

I had never been up to College Station before this week but I knew Texas A&M had the only veterinary school in the state. It’s not close but it’s not too far, which turned out to be lucky for me since my twenty year old gelding Buzz was diagnosed with a thyroid tumor requiring surgical removal.

I’ve never had a horse that needed surgery before. They get their share of cuts and scrapes, sprained joints and infections, but horses are resilient animals. They recover from almost anything with a few antibiotics and a good rinse a couple of times per day. And it’s very difficult to tell when something is wrong with them. Unless it’s their legs or feet, horses are incredibly stoic. The only way I knew Buzz was sick was that he lost weight. That’s not to say he stopped eating, he ate better than ever, but the pounds melted off him.

I was impressed when I arrived at the Large Animal Hospital parking lot of Texas A&M. The place was designed for easy parking for a whole bunch of trucks pulling horse trailers. I registered Buzz and went out to unload him. It turned out we were a few minutes early for our one o’clock appointment. To the west, dark clouds loomed, slowly advancing on our position. Luckily, the student labor quickly brought us inside, moments before the clouds burst violently open.

Buzz went into an immaculate individual exam room with all the modern facilities. The floor was spotless and slightly springy to make it easy for horses to walk. The ceiling was high to give horses the illusion of space they need to remain calm. Skylights provided natural light for most areas.

Several fourth-year vet student gave Buzz a quick physical, either they didn’t have much to do or they thought Buzz’s case was especially interesting. When they finished, their professor made an appearance. He listed to the students’ evaluation and asked me a few questions. Then he explained that the tumor was almost certainly benign and did not require surgical removal. In addition, such a tumor could not be responsible for the weight loss that made me seek veterinary help in the first place since Buzz’s thyroid function tested normal. I didn’t know what to think. I’d driven 130 miles in hopes of curing my horse. This did not sound promising.

They decided they might as well do an ultrasound of the tumor just to verify it was what they thought. The whole entourage--me, Buzz, the vet, and four or five vet students--went down the hall to the ultrasound room. There we met a vet who specialized in ultrasound and another vet tech or two to handle the machines. Buzz endured everything without a single spook as they sprayed alcohol on his neck and poked him endlessly.

Finally, the ultrasound vet said the tumor did not look good. It needed to be removed after all. He phoned another vet to find out where a thyroid tumor might migrate. Then they recommend chest xrays. No point removing the main tumor if there were already baby tumors infiltrating his body, they explained. The diagnosis had gone from the-tumor-is-nothing to your-horse-might-already-be-dead. Not a good feeling. I was glad Buzz didn’t understand. Luckily the xrays came back negative. Buzz had a reprieve.

Buzz spent the night in a special stall in a hallway that looked more like a prison block than a stable. His hour-and-a-half long surgery took place the following morning. Everything went well and the good news was that the tumor was encapsulated, making it less likely to have metastasized. The bad news was that it was highly vascularized, making it more likely to have metastasized. The tumor itself was sent to pathology which will take several days to come back with a diagnosis on the actual nature of the tumor.

In the meantime, Buzz is home again and doing well. Once his throat stops hurting, he’ll go back to eating four times the ration of grain I gave him before he got sick, still in the hopes of putting some weight back on him. Although the thyroid tumor was life-threatening, the vet still says it could not be responsible for his weight loss.

I admit, I am impressed and intimidated by the facilities and expertise of the veterinarians and students at the A&M Large Animal Hospital, but there is one thing my scientific background tells me: while it is not impossible for two unrelated potentially terminal conditions to arise at the same time, it is unlikely. From my experiences with medical doctors and my broken wrist, I know that medicine is not a science, everything is guesswork. I am hopeful that removing the tumor will restore my horse’s health. Poor horse, he probably thinks we know what we’re doing.

Photo: Clarissa Leight (age 10) riding Buzz in April, 2007, just before he got sick.

Photo: Buzz waiting for his trailer ride up to A&M--or, preferably, more food
Photo: Buzz getting chest xrays to see if the cancer has already spread.
Photo: I don't think I've ever seen Buzz more miserable than when he got out of surgery.
Photo: Poor horse!


namacuix said...

You should have mentioned that the vets all said he was the best behaved horse. That would have added a more human touch to the story.

kizzy said...

We love you, buzz!

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