As Dr. Devine began the endoscopy procedure on Alex, he explained the symptoms of choke and the possible complications that could go along with it. I spent part of the time admiring his short handlebar mustache which was waxed into a slight twist at the ends. He was young and straightforward, very clinical in his approach and in the explanation of his findings. I asked questions pertaining to the matter as we watched the scope move through his esophagus.
“You’re pretty sharp on this,” said Dr. Devine as he advanced the scope through Alex’s esophagus.
“Well, I like to read up on things, especially if they happen to one of my animals,” I replied.
I didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all who resented being at a vet office. I admire and respect vets and, at one point in my life, wanted to be one. I don’t normally admit to having a copy of the Merck Veterinary Manual on my kitchen counter – where a mother of three young children spends most of her time. Nor do I usually find myself in the company of individuals who enjoy a good conversation about equine illnesses, piglet castration methods, or tubing cattle in an emergency. I quieted down and watched intently as the scope picked up on a large bolus of hay in Alex’s esophagus down in his chest.
“Here is the choke,” Dr Devine said, “and here is why it was impossible to palpate.”
The bolus was in the part of Alex’s esophagus that ran down through his chest prior to entering into his stomach. A somewhat strange place for a choke to occur. Dr Devine attempted to remove the bolus during a tense moment of pumping water through a stomach tube and moving it back and forth to dislodge the feed. There was a chance that his esophagus could rupture during this procedure and everyone in the room knew it.
“So Doc, have you ever encountered a choke you couldn’t clear?” I asked.
“Nah. I’ve had a few I had to get pretty western on, but they came out alright,” he replied.
I resisted the urge to jokingly retort, ‘Well, you’ve certainly got the mustache for it.’ But I didn’t want his focus drawn away from the task of clearing the choke lodged in my horse’s throat. Once the choke was cleared, Alex was scoped for a second time to confirm the clearance and to check the mucosal lining for damage. Even though damage can exist in any of the three linings of the esophagus, the fact that his interior mucosal lining looked fine gave us a better prognosis than not. I held back tears of joy and rubbed Alex on his forelock. I was relieved to be taking him home even though the scope had confirmed food particles in his trachea. The Doc warned me that the pneumonia was just as serious as the choke – we were not out of the woods yet. He gave me the daily dose of antibiotics to be given by injection and the antifungal pills which I was to either feed to Alex or insert rectally if needed. I asked the Doc what version of rectal insertion was necessary to be compliant with the dosage; a finger tip, a wrist, an elbow, or a shoulder? I was half joking at this point, relief was settling in as I hugged Alex’s neck and held back from doing the same to Dr Devine.
“Just inside the sphincter will be fine,” he said in a dry tone.
“So, what are the chances that I get him home and he has no interest in food or water due to soreness or further complications?” I asked.
“None,” said Dr Devine. “You will not have any issues with that, he is going to want to eat and drink when you are home.”
And with that, we headed for home. Visiting family members and a little girl’s birthday party were awaiting me at home. I drove off and finally let loose those tears of joy.
When I met Brian, he didn’t have any pets. In fact, the last time he’d had any pets was when he lived in his parent’s home in Garland, Texas as a young boy. I only had a dog and a cat at the time, but I had grown up with multiple dogs, cats, horses, and rescue animals. I spent most of my high school and college years interning and working at a local vet office. I strongly considered studying veterinary medicine in college, but my heart led me to study writing. In most cases, the boy woos the girl by writing poems and making grandeur displays of romanticism – in our case, the opposite was true. Perhaps I forgot to mention, in my many love poems to Brian, that I loved animals just as much as I loved him. After we began our little family together, I prompted him to get a couple of dairy goats…we settled on a small flock of laying hens instead. So one afternoon, I took his mother Judy with me to buy a batch of day old chicks, brought them home, and plopped them down in the middle of our living room floor as she silently shook her head. And that was it, the beginning of our small family farm.
I arrived home late in the afternoon, but still in front of my parents who were busy buying bathroom cabinetry for the home they are building on our shared property. I passed my husband at Elephant Rock and we stopped briefly to chat about the afternoon, Alex, and the egg deliveries he was on his way to complete. I took one kid and he kept the other two as we parted ways for the next hour or so. When I backed the trailer to the barn, I placed my youngest son out of harms way before I backed Alex off the trailer – I knew he would be tired after six hours on a trailer to Denver and back. And that was when it happened. The moment I backed him off the trailer and saw the mucus still dripping fervently from his nostrils, I knew I had lost him. I knew he was gone forever and that I was going to have to make the call – definitive diagnosis or not.
Brian and I sold our first house and moved onto an acre of land with an old log cabin just outside of town when our daughter was a year old. We called it The Crowded Acre after we slowly started adding more laying hens, meat birds, turkeys, dairy goats, and feeder pigs. We raised our daughter on raw goats milk, we enjoyed farm fresh eggs, we made our own cheese and dairy products, and we fried our own bacon and pork chops. We renovated the house and had a second child, a son. We brought my childhood horse, Riley, out from Georgia to spend the last of his days with me and my new family. Brian was not only tolerant of our new four-legged family members, he was encouraging of my desire to help provide sustenance for our growing family. He has never been the kind of man to ask me to change bits and pieces of myself to better suit him, he has only been grateful for who I already am. That is true love.
I immediately called the emergency service for the Littleton Equine Hospital. I was hoping to connect with Dr. Devine since he had seen Alex just hours before, but I settled for the on-call Doc. I explained my concerns to her about Alex and how I believed he was losing his ability to swallow. He hadn’t had access to any food or roughage on the way home and he appeared to be choking again. I also explained that Dr. Devine had discovered that Alex was what they refer to as a “roarer,” meaning he had a consistent paralysis of part of his laryngeal nerve. At the time, this was viewed as a separate occurrence, not related to his current condition – now I wasn’t so sure. The on-call Doc explained that laryngeal paralysis and pharyngeal paralysis had nothing to do with each other. She was convinced that Alex had simply choked again and that recurrent choke was common among horses that had this issue to begin with. Her advice was to have him seen again by my local vet and to have her clear the choke and move on. I put a bowl of runny, mashed Equine Sr in front of Alex just before I put in a call to Leslie, my vet, to ask her opinion on the matter. Alex didn’t even try to eat it. My heart sank.
After several years on The Crowded Acre, we decided that we were ready for a bigger farm. We were the current home to laying hens, meat birds, turkeys, feeder pigs, dairy goats, a horse, two cats, two dogs, two adults, and two children – we needed a bigger boat. Since land is horrendously expensive in the mountains of Colorado, we enlisted my parents to look for a joint piece of property with us. They were happy to oblige and after some looking, we found our forever home. 15 acres situated on the east side of the valley, nestled in the Pinon forest, only a couple hundred yards from the mighty Arkansas River, and surrounded by BLM land. The land was bare except for a 24′ diameter yurt which we immediately made our home. We spent the next year building our house, introducing new family members, and saying goodbye to old ones.
Leslie answered the phone and I quickly began to explain the situation to her. ‘Oh, no,’ was all she could say at first. She didn’t think he was choking, but offered to come out and tube him anyway. I told her I didn’t see the point in it, that I had an intuition that something else was wrong, that his prognosis wasn’t good. Leslie agreed. We decided to talk again in the morning, at which point she would come out and examine him and, most likely, euthanize him.
“I need to know what you’re going to want to do with him,” she said, as I tried to maintain my composure. “If you want me to euthanize him, I usually call the guys down at the county dump and we trailer the horse down and unload him before I…”
“Leslie, I could never do that,” I interjected. “I just…I just couldn’t ever do that to him.”
“Okay, Jen. Well, you could pick a spot and I could put him to sleep like I’m about to do surgery and then stop his heart. That way you could feed him or bury him wherever you would like.”
“Ok,” I said, “Brian and I will have it all figured out by morning. Thanks Leslie.”
I got off the phone and turned into the house to let my family know the bad news. That on the day we were set to celebrate my daughter’s eighth birthday, we would be saying goodbye to a dear friend and companion. My voice quivered as I spoke.
A year after building our house, we began building our barn. We moved from operating a homestead to running a small family farm which offers humanely raised animal proteins such as beef, pork, eggs, and poultry. We provide all of our own dairy and grow an annual summer garden to support our family of five. Our motto is ‘Honor the Beast,’ something we strive to do every day of our lives. We have lost animals, we have witnessed the birth of animals, and we have slaughtered animals for our own consumption. Everything in its place and a place for every thing. It takes a strong relationship to weather the storms of marriage, children, homeschooling, firefighting (my husband’s profession), farming, and the ever changing task of moving forward. We like to find comic relief wherever we can as a way to brush the hardships off our shoulders and to keep on keepin’ on. My favorite way to add humor to any situation is to pretend that I am speaking for any one of our animals. Each animal has a different voice and I often use it to irritate Brian when he is trying to have a serious conversation with me. I like to say that it is the animal speaking through me and that I have no control over it…he likes to roll his eyes and snort and sneer as if I am something he merely tolerates, along with “my” animals. He often convinces our friends and family that this is the case – Jen and her animals, my wife the farmer, this life that I married – but I know he has a soft spot for me and the animals. We don’t make decisions separate from each other, we drive this life together, and he has agreed to it every step of the way. Sometimes we take a step backwards, or decide that a specific avenue is not right for us, but we continue to move forward. Together, hand in hand – annoying animal voices and all.
To be continued…