Dr. Mike Chovanes's phone rang, piercing through the quiet morning. It was 6:15 am. The 1980 Penn Vet alumnus answered, his stomach twisting at the news trickling from the other end of the line.
His homebred 2-year-old Thoroughbred filly, Bucks Some, was down and unable to rise, trapped in her stall.
As a veterinarian himself, Chovanes was already on the road more than two hours away from the Fair Hill, Maryland farm where his filly had recently been relocated. Despite being new to the track, Bucks Some had been showing promise in her daily training exercises, though her trainer had noticed a slowing pace and declining level of energy just a few days earlier.
Knowing there was no way he could make it to her in time, Chovanes had the filly's trainer call New Bolton Center's Field Service for help. “They went right out to help her,” he recalled.
Dr. Jennifer Linton, Assistant Professor of Clinical Equine Field Service, arrived to the farm to find the filly exactly as she had been described: down in her stall, alternating from lying motionless and thrashing violently. Several possible diagnoses loomed.
“Our first goal was to get her quiet and comfortable,” noted Linton. She immediately administered a sedative to quiet the filly and prevent her from further injuring herself, and then started treatment with intravenous fluids and other supportive care.
Linton knew that in order to have a fighting chance, Bucks Some would have to get to New Bolton Center. The logistics of moving a down horse, however, are tough.
“Moving a down horse is often a bottleneck situation,” shared Chovanes, speaking on his own experience as a veterinarian. “The biggest hurdle is going about getting them out without creating a bigger disaster.”
With that challenge in mind, Linton called upon the skills of the freshly trained New Bolton Center ambulance team. They raced to the farm where they gently transferred Bucks Some from her stall onto a transport sled, maneuvered the horse through the barn aisle, then safely slid the filly into the ambulance trailer. The team fitted her with carefully placed straps to ensure she remained safe for the short journey to Kennett Square.
“I was so impressed with the ambulance team,” beamed Chovanes. “They rolled her onto the mat, placed her on the sled and pulled her safely onto the trailer like it was no big deal.”
Still quiet and comfortable, Bucks Some was whisked off to New Bolton Center where Dr. Rose Nolen-Walston, Associate Professor of Large Animal Medicine, was waiting.
One Bad Bug
Upon arrival, Bucks Some's limp tongue and eyelid tone, muscle tremors and generalized weakness suggested one leading diagnosis: botulism.
A devastating illness, botulism toxins derail the communication between nerves and muscles, resulting in debilitating and potentially lethal neuromuscular impairments. As one of the most potent paralytic agents in the world, these toxins disable muscles by preventing chemical release of neurotransmitters, resulting in paralysis that can last for weeks.
Without a swift course of treatment, the illness is almost always fatal in horses. For Bucks Some, that clock was ticking.
Because of the prolonged amount of time she had been recumbent, the filly would require help to stand. After administering a botulism antitoxin IV and botulism toxoid vaccination, Nolen-Walston promptly had the filly placed in a stall, specially equipped with a sling, located in New Bolton's state-of-the-art biosecure James M. Moran, Jr. Critical Care Center.
Carefully bedded down with closed cell foam mats and deep straw, Bucks Some laid comfortably while being treated with intravenous fluids to keep her hydrated.
For her first 24 hours, her team was careful to keep her from becoming exhausted, only allowing her to stand for a few minutes. During her intermittent periods of being down, her clinical team would frequently check on her, carefully rolling her over to avoid any rub sores. Each day, she was lifted into her sling, encouraging the filly to stand on her own.
“I was overjoyed when I got the call that she had been able to make it to a sling,” recalled Chovanes. “Throughout this entire process, Rose completely understood all of our needs and she called multiple times a day to give updates on how she was progressing.”
More Than a Name
The daughter of the Thoroughbred stallion Northern Afleet, out of Chovanes's own homebred mare Witch Woman, the filly's tenacious spirit emanated beyond her cleverly chosen name–it ran in her blood.
“Northern Afleet has been described as one of the toughest horses in the Thoroughbred world,” explained Chovanes. “He may not be considered very 'fashionable,' but he is durable and he passes that durability onto his babies.”
That determined hardiness, which earned the filly her namesake at only a few days old, showed through when Bucks Some needed it the most.
“She knew when she needed help and she let us do what we needed to help her,” noted Nolen-Walston. “But she quickly let us know when she was feeling better,” she chuckled.
With the antitoxin working to halt the progression of the toxins, Bucks Some was quickly showing signs of improvement. She was tolerating being fed through a tube in her stomach and was receiving intravenous nutrition as well as antibiotics to stave off potentially fatal pneumonia, a common complication in animals with botulism. After about a week, she slowly began to drink on her own and eat small amounts of soft food.
“She began improving rapidly, and soon she was finishing all of her mashes and eating hay,” recalled Nolen-Walston. Throughout hospitalization, she had been a compliant patient, but as her strength returned, so did her feisty temperament.
“We knew she was ready to head home when she wouldn't let the student take her temperature anymore,” shared Nolen-Walston.
“She's a really tough little girl, and that's what pulled her through.”
A Promising Future
With a full recovery in sight, Bucks Some was discharged with a special diet consisting of Purina Equine Senior and well-soaked alfalfa cubes, as her jaw muscles were still weak.
Now home and in the special care of Chovanes's fiancé Mary Zanone, the filly has flourished, growing and gaining weight.
“She's very happy,” beamed Chovanes. “She's back to herself now and goes out in the pasture every day with her buddy. She just looks magnificent.”
For Chovanes, the breadth of service and attention to detail made all the difference for his filly.
“I am so impressed with all of the work that was done to save her life,” added Chovanes. “Her clinical team studied her condition, took their time and got it right. They did a fantastic job.”
Read more at PennVet.
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