We've all heard of West Nile Virus. The mosquito-born illness that hits birds, cattle, horses and people. We think of it as one of those diseases "out there" that won't touch us. Yet, the morning my horse, Scott, didn't greet me at the stall door, I found out differently. I carried the bucket of grain into the barn as usual, but I didn't see Scott's head stretching out of his stall to see where his breakfast was.
When I reached the stall, I saw Scott lying flat on his side. I thought my beautiful, chestnut colored Arabian was dead. After a closer inspection, I realized he was breathing, but it was very shallow . After rushing to the house and phoning a vet, I believed Scott was suffering from severe colic. The vet had informed me that she had treated two cases just the day before. It was important to get Scott on his feet and moving. But no amount of coaxing could get him up. It was a chilly and damp morning, so I warmed blankets in the dryer and kept him covered.
Our own vet arrived just after noon, and when she had looked him over, her prediction was that if he didn't get to his feet soon, he wouldn't get up at all. Scott seemed to have neither the desire nor the ability to get up on his own.
I called my daughter and asked her advice. She had no suggestions, but she phoned her husband at work and asked if he had any ideas. My son-in-law is not a horse person, but he cares about the women in the family who are, so he tried to come up with a solution.
I spent hours running between the house and barn, carrying blankets to keep Scott comfortable. He didn't appear to be in pain, but he made no effort to get up. Occasionally he would have a seizure. His eyes would roll in their sockets and his legs would jerk and twitch. It horrified me to watch him. I was certain he was going to die. And there was nothing I could do.
Lorn, my son-in-law, arrived. He still wasn't sure how we would get Scott onto his feet. Shortly, my son, Dusty yelled to us from the driveway. Lorn went to see what he wanted. Back they came, carrying heavy chains, a wide strap and a pulley! Dusty is a volunteer firefighter, and Lorn had called him to tell him about my predicament with Scott. I was grateful to see him coming with his arms full of equipment. He had decided that the only way to get Scott up was with a strap and pulley.
The two men positioned the chains over the beams of the old barn and hooked the pulley to them. Next came the hard part. Getting the strap under a horse who wasn't able to move! It took a lot of digging and stretching, with the men lying on the cold ground on either side of Scott, but finally they got the strap under him just behind his front legs. The chain was let down and the big hook was linked through the loops of the strap. It took a lot of effort to hoist Scott to his feet, a few inches at a time, but they did it. We shouted with excitement just to see him upright!
Scott didn't seem to be able to control his front legs at all. If the chains holding the strap were loosened he would begin to fall forward. At the time I wasn't aware that an inability to control their front legs was one of the defining signs of West Nile Virus in a horse. Finally, he seemed to build up a little strength, and tried to stand on his own.
After examining him, I found that he had developed a decubitus ulcer over his left hip while lying on the ground for so many hours. I started him on injections of penicillin twice a day, and continued the shots for two weeks with the approval of our vet. She was shocked but pleased that my knights in shining armor had gotten Scott to his feet before it was too late. These knights didn't ride in on horses, but they certainly helped save one's life!
Scott dropped a lot of weight while he was sick. He had scratches and scrapes from the seizure activity. We decided that the large cut over his eye must have happened when he first went down, as there was a metal hay holder in the stall. I spent many hours just sitting with him. I would cover his cuts with Red Kote, and give him his shots. I may have promised him the world, if he would just get well. Seizures were common for the first couple of weeks. He would be unable to use his front legs for short periods after each seizure. The sore on his hip took months to heal. It had to be debrided several times to clear away dead, blackened skin. Scott hated the cleaning and the Red Kote, but it was effective. The wound finally turned pink and the hair began to cover it.
Now, three months later, Scott has three scars from that day, but the seizures have stopped. He is still regaining his lost weight, but I expect that by summer, he will look like his old self again. Many veterinarians say the West Nile vaccine hasn't been proven to work. But I won't be taking any chances. Come spring, Scott will be first in line for a shot!
My beloved Muscat's Image died on January 13, 2006 after a sudden and severe illness. Our vet isn't sure if it was a dramatic form of colic, or if there was a connection to the West Nile from eighteen months before.
No matter which, I'll never forget him and all he meant to my youngest daughter and me.