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First Foal of the Season

In the beginning…

Reproductive work makes up less than 5% of our cases. Foals have always been a special area of interest to me, largely because my first veterinary-related job was with a university and USDA breeding herd. For 3 years during my undergraduate studies, I spent the summers orchestrating and managing a breeding program consisting of 30 mares and 3 stallions. It was during these summers that I thought to myself for the first time

‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do something I thoroughly love and enjoy.’

I felt like this every day. Although the actual cycling and breeding  (AI and livecover) was interesting, without-a-doubt my favorite part was the foals.  Foals were the heart and soul of the job. From their first day to their last  day, they were both the most challenging and rewarding aspects of my job.

In the present…

Since there is definitely a professional void that foals used to fill, I jump at any opportunity to work with them. Last year, I inherited a big client with a small breeding program. We delivered 6 foals last year, and with the exception of one FPT, they were all healthy. This client also became one of my favorites, and I was filled with mixed feelings when she shared the news she was moving out of state. Part of me was sad at the thought of never working with her and her horses again, while the other part was excited for her new opportunity. The odds of working with mares and foals drastically dropped.

However, another client happened to have a pregnant mare that was rescued off a reservation last summer, She was pregnant, feral and has been a ticking time-bomb for the last 4 months. Since it was impossible to ultrasound or examine her, her due date was a complete mystery. As a 2 year old, she was facing a heightened risk of foaling complications (specifically, dystocia),

The client placed cameras in the stall for constant monitoring, and we all spent many evenings obsessively glued to these cameras. I even found myself checking the cameras while driving between appointments, grocery shopping and every night before bed. Over the past 2 weeks, curiosity turned to obsession as the rescue thought labor was underway any time she laid down, swished her tail, took a break from her feeder or circled her stall.

After the long wait…

It was on a Wednesday, which happens to be one of the weekdays I am not on call for emergencies. When my work phone rang, I didn’t have to look at the caller ID to know that it was the owner of the rescue.

“We’ve got wax!” 

I actually squeel-yelled into the phone with excitement and then apologized for blasting her eardrum. Waxing, in 95% of cases, means impending parturition (birthing process) in the next 6-48 hours. From my previous experience a breeding program, I guessed she would deliver her foal in the middle of the night, between 12am and 3am.

At 11:30pm, I was already out the door before I knew who was calling. This time there was a panicked tone on the other end of the line.

The foal is coming and there’s something wrong! Come quick!”

I live 8 minutes away from the rescue. I was there in exactly 7 minutes. During that handful of time, the foal was born. He lay sprawled on the ground, soaking wet. His dam, while curious about the new arrival, was equally suspcious and reluctant to approach. After passing a physical exam without a single abnormality, I spent a little time soaking up the moments. The adrenaline rush was replaced with heavy exhaustion. My colleague, the official doctor on call, was due to arrive any moment (she lived 30 minutes away). The foal was now in her care until 6 the next morning.

A note on exhaustion, fatigue and sleep deprivation

While I treasure foals, and welcome the surge of emotions that come with the entrance of a new horse life, I was also entering zombie mode. I had spent the previous two nights handling emergencies and then worked two full days with no sleep.

During vet school and the internship, mental/emotional/physical exhaustion is a very real problem. Going without sleep for 36+ hours takes sleep deprivation to a dangerous level. It wasn’t uncommon to wake-up in the driver’s seat, engine still idling and suddenly realizing you don’t remember the drive home.

In the middle of my fourth year of vet school, I remember jolting awake to the sound of someone knocking on my window. My neighbor’s worried expression was followed by

“I wanted to make sure you were okay. My husband said you’ve been idling here for 4 hours. Are you okay?”

It was 4:30 am. I assured her I was okay, just tired.

And during the internship, I even fell asleep standing up. After 42 hours without sleep, I was watching our clinician perform an abdominal ultrasound on a very sick patient. Before I knew what was happening, I felt myself suddenly fall forward…stumbling into the ultrasound and doctor trying to perform it!

Nothing will make you treasure and value sleep like an internship, vet school or any other inordinately demanding job. Looking back now, I shake my head in disbelief that any employer, program or profession would even consider asking or expecting someone to reach this extreme level of fatigue. It’s not only dangerous to the individual, but the patients as well!    

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