West Nile Drama
by Elizabeth Miller Evans of Fountain, CO
Carl and I enjoyed meeting you this past September at the Southwest Colorado Small Farm Conference. As you know, we are learning to drive and work under the direction of a pair of my Dad’s very mellow Suffolks – Sage and Sky. “The Boys” are two-year olds who are the usual clowns out in pasture, but quickly assume the business and Chuck Baley work ethic of older horses once in harness. They had spent much of the summer with us, and as the house was finally finished, our thoughts turned to making plans for small market garden patches next year. The small farm gathering in Durango had renewed our sense of purpose, and The Boys had been practicing with different type of equipment and terrain.
October came with a few light frosts, and we dreamed about pumpkin patches and alfalfa. But as the days got shorter, Sky seemed to be tired and weak. At first we did not suspect West Nile, for the symptoms were unlike other horses, and we had finished the vaccinations a month earlier. Surely Sage and Sky had escaped the risk… surely there were no mosquitoes this late.
On the terrible Tuesday of October 15, Carl and I came home and noticed that Sky was stumbling and dragging his back feet and his chest was swelling. Knowing that pigeon fever was in the neighborhood, we called Georgette, our vet. On Wednesday, Georgette identified the symptoms as West Nile, and began the treatments. Sky weakened considerably through that day and began stumbling and falling even more. Carl and I went to bed that night fearful and sleepless.
Our worst fears were realized the next morning. Carl went out to check at 5am, and I heard him call for me. I ran out into the dark morning to find Sky down in a corner of the paddock, tangled in the fence panels. The horse’s breath rose as frosted wisps into the flashlight’s beam, and I could see the earth was black and warm where he had dug into it, trying to bring himself up. I put my hands on his neck and felt the warmth and sweat from his struggles. Sky quickly calmed, then rested and watched as Dad and neighbor Rod appeared out of nowhere and began tearing away at the fence panels to free his front legs. He stayed still as we secured soft ropes to his feet to turn him away from the panels, and with a groan of relief, Sky laid down his head. I looked up into men’s faces and I could see the despair.
Day broke and Georgette came again. I walked out into the paddock to find Sky with his head up – I pushed a bit of hay to him and brought him a round of fresh water. Sky grunted and began his breakfast as if he always had it served “in bed.” Georgette, Dad and I washed the sand and dirt from his wounds and talked about what to do next. The odds weren’t good – only one in ten that go down ever get up. Sky snorted as if to pooh-pooh those odds and then asked for more hay. We decided he was willing and began aggressive treatments.
Carl had gone into work, not ready to accept that we might lose Sky. I had stayed home, not knowing what the day might bring and preparing for the worst. I eyed a special spot that might become his resting place, the practical part of me having to plan for something a bit bigger than the plot we had picked out for Sydney the cat. Dad, Carl and I talked later that day in the same practical ways of what this might all mean and what kind of decision we may have to face in the next day or so. But the conversations usually ended in an unpractical feeling, a dry throat and warm tears.
As faithful teammate, Sage kept watch. Carl and I checked through the night, and the next morning I stumbled out to the paddock and shuddered from the cold. Sky seemed weaker, and as I leaned over to lay my head on his neck, the tears came hot and fierce. As I fretted over what to do, I felt a warm hand on my back – neighbor Bob had come by, and I hadn’t noticed his truck drive up. I instantly felt stronger and stood up with new resolve. Bob helped turn Sky, and we started a new day.
The blood tests confirmed Sky’s diagnosis, and that Sage had escaped infection. Georgette continued the treatments twice a day, following advice from Doc Huck in Missouri and the vet school at the University of Florida. Sky became accustomed to the sponge baths, stomach tubes and needles. Someone always appeared in time to help turn him. He nickered softly when approached and was most appreciative of all the attention and care. Meanwhile, the local morning news buzzed that the virus season was over, and only six horses in El Paso County had been afflicted. Well it wasn’t over for us – we were number seven.
But by Saturday, Sky was frustrated… although he appeared to be getting stronger; he couldn’t get up and was plowing in circles all over the paddock while trying. Knowing that he could not stay down much longer and fearing that he would hurt himself, we decided it was time to help him get up. The awful truth was that we could injure him by trying but we ran the risk of an equally terrible outcome if he stayed down. Neighbors called and stopped by for support, but were at a loss for what to do next.
We worked his legs and massaged his muscles – Sky still had use and strength in his limbs. Dad called Doc Huck again and listened to recounts of other efforts to get horses up on their feet. That afternoon, Carl, Dad, Dave and Kate built a frame over him. Nan and Laird came by with all sorts of straps and doohickeys that might work to rig a system. Sage offered his help to us by providing a standing model for a hoist. Finally, we rigged hammocks and straps under Sky’s belly and tried to hoist him with come-alongs… other neighbors came, and we worked all evening. Sky was willing and patient, dangling part way in all sorts of odd contraptions, consenting to frequent reengineering test trials – but he couldn’t help us, his back legs were too weak. Night fell and we all decided to take a rest and then start again the next morning.
By Sunday morning, everyone had thought about ways to make the system better, so we had new ropes and straps rigged up, and Laird brought over his backhoe to give us more height to lift. But again, our strap systems failed, and we couldn’t get Sky’s back legs under him. Dad and the neighbors discussed other options, but then decided to forgo another try. Carl was beside himself with dismay, and Rod talked him into leaving for a while to go to the hardware store and clear his head. I decided to sit with Sky.
As we toasted in the early afternoon sun, Sky and I talked about the past few days, and I told him how much I appreciated his willingness and calm nature, even though he must be in pain and very frustrated. We agreed that it would have been nice to have deepened our relationship under less difficult circumstances. Sky then raised his head and asked why everyone had left, and I explained that we were all saddened because we felt as though we had failed to help him. He indicated that he wasn’t ready to give up, and if we thought of anything else, then we should give it a try.
I got up and paced… Kris had mentioned putting his back legs in tires to lift, and then I began thinking of paratroopers and how their legs are strapped in the chute harness. I got a few big padded cinches, and Sky and I worked on a plan to make loops for his back legs to help with the lifting. He complied as I measured and fitted. Sage joined in the experiment, providing a model for how the loops would look on a standing horse. I rooted through Dad’s barn and sorted through a series of neck yokes to find one to match the length of Sky’s back. Nothing…then I spied an old iron neck yoke that was just the right length with strong welds all around… we could suspend it from the backhoe forks, then we could hook the two back leg loops on one end and the cinch around his belly on the other end. Hopefully this would give us two points to lift from and steady Sky once he was up. I discussed the new plan with Sky, and with a great sigh, he indicated that it was time to call the troops for one more try.
Laird got on the backhoe, and Bob, Nan, Dad and I set to securing the leg loops. Sky lay still as the backhoe roared above him. I whispered a wish to surprise Carl with a standing horse as the chains were finally in place and we stepped back to give Laird the signal. Carl drove up just as the backhoe forks moved toward the clouds, and sure enough, Sky’s big butt came off the ground. As the backhoe gently set him on all fours, the big red horse shook off the dust of the past few days and swished his tail. The neighbors danced.
I still recall the wash of relief that came over me… both that our new plan had worked, but also that we had escaped the awful risk of injury. Sky had trusted in our care and submitted to the medicine and handling for days – and now we had done everything we could for him. Georgette arrived, elated, and as we ran our hands over Sky’s muscles and checked the tension of the straps and loops, I knew the battle was not yet over. I prayed that we would not have to make any other big decisions.
I stood and watched as the neighbors secured the forks with beams, and Dad and Carl built a picnic table for Sky to eat and drink from. Being a clown, Sky continued to knock the pans over until they nailed everything down. I turned to look at all the work from the past few days – equipment and ropes scattered all over the paddock, the beam assembly padded with all our best bed pillows, all the trucks parked by the house. The entire community had been here at one point or another, and I was grateful for their steadfast support and concern, grateful that I lived here.
Sky walked out of the straps two days later. We continued the analgesics for a few days more. He would roll his eyes when I approached with the needles, but never moved or flinched as I gave him the rest of his medications. As I stood next to him with the needles, I thought of the tiny dose of infected blood that began his illness. Seems like a single small needle would be all that one would need to foil the plans of a tiny little virus given in a tiny little dose from a single mosquito.
Having spent too much time in school, I understood a lot of the biology of what had happened – the virus had run headlong into Sky’s body like a bad economic policy, bankrupting his simple and immature immune system with undue challenges while ungratefully wreaking havoc in the very systems that had allowed it to reproduce in the first place. The analgesics calmed the inflammation while the virus ran its course through Sky’s nervous system, giving time for his immune system to regroup and mount a response. The fluids and electrolytes we had pumped into him kept his metabolic systems in balance, the frequent turning and muscle stimulation had prevented cramps and atrophy.
But in my heart I knew that love and good neighbors had healed Sky. I can’t help but think so as I watch him amble across the same paddock to greet me and a pitchfork full of hay. The beam assembly is now part of his new loafing shed. And just yesterday, Sky was back in harness, making sure the bells jingled a little louder as he and Sage trotted the wagon down the road at full strength. It was Kevin’s 7th birthday party, and he wasn’t going to let the neighbors down.