There are certain patients and clients you know you’ll never forget. Some cases that almost haunt you, arising from the subconcious on a whim. Little reminders seem to be hidden in tiny corners and crevaces of every day life. Whether its meeting a person or horse with the same name, diagnosing another patient with the same disease, or even sitting at AAEP lectures with the topic being similar in nature…a horse with a similar disposition, or sometimes just a single word on a billboard. It seems just as time has gone by, there is a reminder somewhere that brings the memories trickling (sometimes flooding) back.
This is the story of Thomas, one of the cases that for many reasons, I will not forget.
I first met Thomas in January for a routine dental and vaccines. His owner, Emma, had been referred to me by the practice that performed his pre-purchase exam only a month prior. His PPE had gone smoothly with no significant abnormalities found during the extensive work-up. The owner wasn’t able to attend this first appointment, but the trainer was present. She lead the handsome young gelding into the washrack. Just watching him walk into the washrack, I could see incoordination and exagerated gate in the hind end. His hind feet were parked oddly out from under his body, with his front feet almost ontop of one another. He stumbled and stepped on himself multiple times in the 5 minutes I spent observing. He had a slight head tilt to the left and the left side of his lower lip drooped. The nature of the appointment instantly changed, with the focus turning to neurological examination instead of a routine dental.
The findings of the neurological exam revealed cranial nerve deficits, especially noteable on the left side. Facial nerve paralysis, the head tild and decreased pupillary reflex times were the most significant CN abnormalities. On dynamic assessment, he had a grade III hindend ataxia and grade II bilateral forelimb ataxia. He had assymetrical muscling of his gluteal muscles, with the right being much more extreme than the left. He had marked weakness during the tail-pull to the right, at one point he almost fell over. Given the cranial nerve deficits and generalized ataxia, we decided to rule out a top differential of EPM. He had neck radiographs taken at the PPE, which after second review, were normal. No traumatic events were in his history.
His EPM titer results came a week later. The titer levels were high, indicating a 95% likelihood that his signs were attributed to EPM. We moved forward with a standard treatment protocol of daily Ponazuril and Vitamin E. In a month, we would return for a recheck neurological exam.
We continued the Ponazuril another month, during which his imrovement plateaued. Emma, opting to give him every fighting chance, elected to try another EPM medication called Protazil. After a month on the protazil, his recheck exam found significant improvement. His neurological signs had improved enough that now a right hind limb lameness became apparent.
5 months later
Now 5 months after diagnosing the EPM, with most of his facial nerve and ataxia signs resolved, we moved forward with his routine care. His vaccines and dental went without complications and he continued to receive his bodywork and acupuncture. I’ve held some skepticism in thepast, but the bodywork and acupuncture had a profound effect on his physical and mental state. He looked brighter, moved easier and the right hindlimb lameness was resolved.
A month later, I received a text that he had relapsed. The same day, I went out to exam him,. He was dull, quiet and his neurologic abnormalities at returned worse than before. After heavy consideration, Emma made the difficult decision to let him go. Unfortunately, for insurance to cover the costly treatments and reimberse for all the money spent, a necropsy at a certified facility had to be performed. I won’t name the insurance company, but I will say that how all the details were handled was grotesque. The insurance company required that Thomas’ necropsy be performed with 8 hours of his euthanasia. Since the only lab near by was 6 hours away, and since Thomas was not safe to transport, it took detailed coordination between all of us to meet the time constraints. In the veterinary field, you develop a way of talking about these things in a tactful, professional manner. I have never had a client involved in the details of this process, and honestly, I had never been involved in planning such intricate, time senstive logistics. The whole process was heartbreaking and gruesome for Emma, a nightmare for anyone whose beloved companion becomes an object, entity or commodity to company policies. I admire her and all of the strength she clearly showed through this painful process.
To meet the time constraints and laboratory hours, we had to euthanize Thomas in the middle of the night. After working that day, I set my alarm for 12am so that I could make it to the barn by 1 am. His transportation (provided by my assistant) would deliver him to the lab between 7 and 8 am. I set the alarm, just in case…but I definitely did not sleep. I had discussed his case with multiple internists, researched novel treatments so extensively that anytime I went onto google, it asked if I wanted to search new research in EPM. Although I was confident in my diagnosis and that the treatments we had done were the present gold standard, there was still that little voice whispering “but maybe…”
We arrived at the barn just before 1am. We placed the catheter, sedated Thomas and lead him out of the barn. Fog had crept in and it was starting to rain. Then, it started to pour. I remember the syringes being slippery, and all of us squinting through the beams of the headlamps as we laid him down under using anesthetics. He went down gently onto his side, deep in a sleep state, before Emma gave the gesture to give the final injection. Within minutes, Thomas was gone.
It was 2 weeks before the necropsy results came back. The trouble with EPM, is a definitive diagnosis is not always possible even with necropsy and microscopes. The chances of identifying the organism, especially after months of treatment, becomes slim. My fear was that the necropsy would not identify the organism anywhere, and determine the cause of his neurological disease indeterminant. When I read the results, my heart sank. No EPM organisms had been identified on necropsy and histopathology. But down, at the very bottom of the extensive report, a note said that the abnormalities found in the spinal cord were consistent with those seen in EPM.
We had all reached a point where we wanted answered. We wouldn’t get the answers as to why he suddenly relapsed, or why he didn’t respond to treatments like some horses. EPM, the heartbreaking disease that it is, can do anything at any time…making it a challenge and yet another disease warranting further research.
We did not get the answers we wanted, but we did get the answer we needed.
At a horse show a couple weeks ago, I ran into Emma. We small-talked a little, and she hugged me before we parted ways. She expresed sincere gratitude for my efforts. She said one day she might look at bringing another horse into her life, but that she isn’t ready. I returned the hug. Sometimes, at the end of it all, that’s all you can do.
Click here for information on Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM)
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