A panicked driver pulls into the emergency drop-off area at 3 a.m. and is met by a team of medical professionals dressed in blue scrubs.The critically injured patient is transferred to a stretcher, rolled into the large brick building, and raced down the long white corridor to a sterile surgery suite. There, a highly trained surgeon prepares to perform an innovative new procedure.
What may sound like a scene from a prime-time medical drama but features a horse as the patient — not a human.
Hundreds of horses each year receive urgent treatment at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center. The Leesburg, Va.-based hospital has fulfilled a need in the region by serving as the only 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week equine emergency facility within a 200-mile radius. Day and night, the center’s team of veterinary professionals provides care to patients presented for critical diagnosis and treatment. In some cases, that care can make the difference between life and death.
“Owning a horse can be an incredibly rewarding experience. However, horses are powerful, athletic animals with an uncanny ability to injure themselves,” said Dr. Sarah Dukti, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine and surgery. “Unfortunately, emergencies are always a surprise and due to the strong human/animal bond and the emotional and financial commitments we have to our horses, tremendous stress can be placed on owners, trainers, and barn managers during these situations. Having a specialty hospital nearby that can handle critical injuries and diseases can make all the difference.”
As one of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s three campuses, the center is renowned for its advanced surgical technology, 24-7 nursing, in-house pharmacy, onsite lab, and extensive array of diagnostic imaging technologies. However, Dukti said that it is the top-notch talent of the hospital’s faculty, which includes a board-certified anesthesiologist, that really makes the center unique.
“We have a collection of specialists boarded in a variety of subject areas who are available to focus on any given emergency. As a surgeon, I can consult with an internist at any time and get their opinion,” Dukti said. “I think that in some ways, horses get treated better here than humans do in the [emergency room] because we see the patients quickly and the quality of care is exceptionally high.”
Although the hospital accepts all types of equine emergencies, the most common conditions for which horses are presented include colic (disease of the gastrointestinal tract), wounds, musculoskeletal injuries, diarrhea, neonatal complications, and respiratory distress.
Additionally, approximately 80 foals are brought to the equine medical center annually for conditions such as prematurity, neonatal sepsis (infection), hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (brain damage resulting from a lack of oxygen which is also known as “dummy foal”), and diarrhea. Due to their delicate nature, foals that are brought in for emergency treatment are always seen first by members of the hospital’s internal medicine team who specialize in the physiologic interaction among internal body systems. These board-certified experts oversee and implement their care along with help from residents, interns, and nurses.
“The reason you bring a neonate here for critical care is the experience and knowledge of the medical team resulting from their years and years of working with sick foals,” said Dr. Martin Furr, professor and Adelaide C. Riggs Chair in Equine Medicine. “You learn something from handling that many cases. You see elements of a case that other people might not see.”
Since the hospital’s inception in 1984, Furr and his colleagues have enthusiastically shared their knowledge with the more than 700 fourth-year veterinary students, interns, and residents who have come to the hospital for advanced specialty training. The hands-on education offered includes time in the emergency and critical care unit where veterinarians learn that, as in human medicine, the hours are long, the stress is real, and the stakes are high.
But it is the love of the animals and the challenge of ever-evolving techniques and technologies that keep these equine health-care specialists striving for excellence.
“I get asked all the time how I can do emergencies because they don’t always turn out so well but I think that you relish the success stories. If you have a horse that was four hours from death and you are able to send them home healthy, it is a great feeling,” Dukti said. “The ones that you can save make it all worthwhile.”
Shelley Duke, owner and manager of Rallywood Farm in Middleburg, Va., has pledged a gift of more than $10 million through her estate to Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center.
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