Pasture horses

Christmas Eve

The trachea is a firm round tube of cartilage that carries air from the mouth down the neck to the lungs. Most people call it the windpipe. My fingers explored my own wind pipe as I contemplated my duty this Christmas Eve.

In front of me stood my own Thoroughbred gelding born on my farm a few months less than two years before. He was a strapping young, bay, bundle of joy filled with self confidence. He was an immediate part of our family the day he was born. Still full of mischief, he played hard and was just entering the stage of life where he was going to commit to a life of serving humans.

Earlier in December, I had begun to notice a problem with his breathing. The air that normally entered the horse effortlessly as he galloped across the field was now being restricted. A whistling noise could gently be heard near his nostrils. Over a short course of time, the noise had grown louder. A week before Christmas, I started to notice one, then two, smooth edged lumps on his face.

As a veterinarian, my mind went through the list of possibilities and seemed to rest on this being some sort of trauma to the face of my beautiful gelding. As the father of this family of humans, horses, dogs, and cats, I tried to remain calm. Deep down I knew something was more wrong than my veterinary mind was allowing. I dismissed that feeling as I remained calm and professional. Then I looked for help.

I loaded my horse into the trailer and hauled him over to Cornell University’s vet school only 15 minutes away. The roads were clear and the temperatures were freezing which was typical for upstate New York this time of year. The traffic had not thickened yet with shoppers as I sought out the early morning for travel.

Arriving at the hospital, I led my horse into the exam room. The head of surgery was my former instructor and friend. In his thick Canadian accent, he asked, “So Geoff, what have we got here?”

His face was young and bright but he had shown his knowledge and amazing surgical abilities over the few years I had known him. He was the surgical resident during my last year as a vet student and had moved into a faculty position the year after graduation. Today, only a few years after earning my veterinary degree, I was very glad that he had agreed to look at my horse.

“I can’t pass my scope up his nose,” I said. “Something has blocked his nasal passages,” I continued, “and is restricting his air flow.”

The veterinary team took over and I was fully in the shoes of the concerned owner. My few years as a vet, still fresh with all the book knowledge, was stumped over the cause. I still was leaning towards trauma until I was shown the X-rays.

“You see these golf ball sized circles here in the sinuses?” my friend asked. I could easily see several of these perfectly round areas within an area of the head where there should be none. I was perplexed. I looked and asked, “What are they?”

“These are sinus cysts. It is unusual to have them in a horse older than a foal and to have so many of them.” He continued, “The surgery is very bloody, Geoff, but is the only solution. We can do it tomorrow.”

I left my horse and returned home to tell my family. They were busy with decorations and cooking. My young son was only 3 days away from Santa’s arrival so to be “nice,” he was helping in the kitchen. Kathy smiled at the distraction of my arrival and amidst the baking flour being spread everywhere by the extra helping hands, I told her the news.

The Atlantic Ocean off of eastern Long Island
The Atlantic Ocean off of eastern Long Island

Making light of the next day’s surgery to my family, I laid awake that night wondering how these cysts could be removed without further damage. In addition, I also knew this horse would be transfused with gallons of blood from donors to cover the loss from the surgery. I tried not to focus on the surgeon’s word – “gallons.”

The next day was tense as my horse was sent into the operating room. I was asked not to attend. I wasn’t a stranger and I was usually more than welcome to scrub in on surgeries there, but the surgeon knew that this one was not for the owner to see. I went on my own rounds of visits to the area barns. I collected my fair share of Christmas cookies and cake from the farms I visited, which helped me make it through this day. In the late afternoon, I received a page to call the hospital. There were no cell phones then and I had to find a pay phone.

“All went well, Geoff. Come on over to see him.” My heart leaped about as I hung up, then dialed the house to tell Kathy. My horse looked a little worse for wear in the hospital stall. His head was swollen and sutures covered his face and gauze plugged his nostrils. When he recognized me, he lifted his head and nickered – or at least tried to nicker. But no air traveled through his head. In stead, a stainless steel device had been placed into his wind pipe about 6 inches below his throat. It was called a trachea tube, shortened to “Trake Tube,” that was placed into the trachea allowing for air to enter the lungs there rather than through the nostrils.

I remember how brave my horse was and the look in his eye as he showed confidence in the people around him. The next day was Christmas Eve and the hospital would be short staffed. The surgeon asked if I would take him home. I was thrusted back from being an owner into the role of being the attending vet. Looking at the horse, I had doubt of my abilities to nurse him, but my friend thought otherwise.

“You’ve changed a Trake Tube before, haven’t you?” he asked. Blinking my eyes, I said that I had not.

“It’s simple,” he said as he proceeded to show me how to insert the two metal pieces, then rotate them into a locking position. “You need to do this twice a day. Otherwise it will become clogged with mucus and he won’t be able to breath.” I nodded that I understood the directions.

He finalized the directions with a warning. “When you take the Trake Tube out, he won’t be able to breath until you place the clean one back in. That will be about a minute.”

That night I stood alone in my barn. Kathy was in the house with my son and my visiting mother. He was still awake as midnight approached. There were no visions of gifts or food in my head. My visualization consisted only of replacing the metal tube in my horse’s throat.

A half hour before midnight I went out to the barn alone. My horse’s attitude was a lot better. He lazily chewed on his hay and his bright eyes could be seen with only the full moon’s light. After a moment of scratching his withers, I switched on the barn lights and prepared for the transfer of the tube.

Taking the old one out was easy. I immediately went to scrubbing clean the slit in his throat. 10 seconds went by. His eyes were calm as I moved with efficiency. I reached for the new, clean tube and started to insert the slender and tapered end into the slit in his throat and wind pipe.

It wouldn’t go in. The fit was extremely tight. I pressed harder, which only moved the wind pipe off to the side. I tried another approach. The horse started to breath in but was getting no air because both nostrils were plugged with bandages. I looked up and saw his big brown eyes grow bigger. Sweat started to pour down my arm pits while vapor form my breath fogged the freezing air.

A bucket of old shoes
A bucket of old shoes

There was no other choice now but to be successful in placing this device into my horse. Clearing panic, I focused harder in visualizing the placement. I was suppressing the thought of anger at my surgeon friend for sending my horse home for convenience of the staff. I blinked and tried again.

Air whistled through the hole as I got the first part in. I paused and breathed myself. Then I inserted th second piece and locked the two together. As the horse drew in air, our eyes came together. In his human way, he said to me, “Thanks, Doc! I had all the faith in you.” I gave him a big hug as he went back to eating his hay.

As I walked back to the house I looked up into the sky filled with a thousand stars. I paused and wiped my eyes as I focused again. There was Santa in his sleigh pulled with his team of reindeer. I could see him looking at me as he laughed his mighty “Ho, Ho, Ho!” He waved his hand to me and then went out of sight.

I knew I had received my greatest gift that Christmas night. Both me and my horse were grateful as I jumped and laughed out loud, then shouted a big “Whoop!” Kathy opened the back door and asked, “Everything all right?”

I never let her know how close I had come to killing my horse. But I did say, “I saw Santa tonight. Merry Christmas!”

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