Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Equine ER: Stories from Year in the Life of an Equine Veterinary Hospital, by Leslie Guttman

In Equine ER: Stories from a Year in the Life of an Equine Veterinary Hospital, Leslie Guttman was given an incredible opportunity. She has used it well. For one entire year, the Lexington, KY-based journalist had unprecedented, 24/7 access to the often tense--and always intense--workings of the prestigious Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, where veterinarians treat 11,000 horses each year, and attend to another 5000 during barn calls.

She made me feel like I was there, too.

Leslie's gift is in her ability to make the reader care passionately about what happens to the horses she chronicles, many of whom are in terrible trouble. You'll root for them to make it. And sometimes, miraculously, they do. But sometimes, in spite of sleepless nights and herculean efforts, and months of round-the-clock care, they don't.

I cheered when the feisty thoroughbred mare, Slewpy's Star, who was dying of pleuropneumonia, was brought back to life with the help of the experimental drug, SLO, and the expertise of Dr. Bonnie Barr. But I cried when the sweet, sweet Quarter Horse mare, Surely Awesome, eventually lost her battle, after shattering the long pastern bone of her right hind leg when she was 10 months pregnant, being expertly put back together by Dr. Alan Ruggles, and subsequently foaling and nursing a beautiful filly, nicknamed Sophie:

"So many stories in the horse world are about missed chances, or almost
making it--the colt that almost won the big race like his grand-sire. The
mare that had just about recovered from a difficult delivery but then
died of an infection. The thousands of shocked people in the stands right
after the Belmont: two minutes earlier they had thought Big Brown would
win the Triple Crown. It is this almostness that can drive you crazy, whether
you're in breeding, racing, training, owning, showing, healing.  Surely Awesome

had almost made it."

In each of the cases she profiles, Leslie deftly weaves information about cutting-edge veterinary medical initiatives into her gripping life-and-death accounts of horses whose fates are anything but certain. Most of the horses who arrive at the doors of the Rood & Riddle hospital are there because it offers their last, tentative chance at survival. Some, like the proud thoroughbred colt, Chelokee, leave the clinic in remarkably good shape, the beneficiary of the arthrodesis technique pioneered by the hospital's Dr. Larry Bramlage, and others, like the gallant Dutch Warmblood, Piaff, perish, a victim of the complications of EPM.

Yet Leslie writes with suspense, not sentimentality. She's a great storyteller, accurately capturing the clinical details of each case, but infusing them with so much more. You can feel the tension in an examining room, the achey "spent" feeling of the vets, interns, and techs who seem never to run out of gas, even after they've already put in a full shift and a horse's condition suddenly spirals out of control. And besides the dignity of the horses themselves, what also pours through these pages is the emotional investment made by the veterinarians and their staff in each patient. I honestly hadn't expected that.

The stories of the horses in Equine ER are compelling because, as Leslie writes:

"Throughout the year, I saw that people need horses more than horses
need people, whether it is an owner with the dream of the winner's
circle on Derby Day or someone with an illness or life setback who finds
strength and determination through the love of a horse or the example
of its courage. I came to see that horses save people more than the
other way around."

If you need horses, or care about them, you'll want to read Equine ER too.