A Living Nightmare

I debated even writing about this.

About how we – in the last 48 hours – came to the edge of the abyss of losing Heighten. 

The edge

of the freaking abyss.

Neither Jim or I want to relive the nightmare that was Sunday afternoon and Sunday early evening and Sunday night and Monday in the wee hours of the morning and the few hours before Monday’s sun peeked above the horizon.

Because what happened during those hours defies anything I could accurately put into words.

It was, simply put, a living hell.

A living hell I never believed possible.

Jim told me point blank today he couldn’t relive it through writing. But we both agreed that we wanted to tell you, our faithful friends and followers and donors and supporters, what happened for two reasons:

1) Writing is the way I cope with traumatic events. Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, whatever) is how I process something my brain keeps telling me was a bad dream.

And 2) We feel that we owe it to everyone – especially our volunteers who love Heighten as a brother – to share the good, the bad, and the ugly of what goes on at a horse sanctuary. A dosage of reality, if you will.

And quite honestly I don’t know where to begin or if I should go into detail or just summarize or just leave it at a few sentences.

I am just still reeling. In Jim’s words, we are still bruised.

But I suppose it started around 3:30pm on Sunday, the day after our wonderful Help A Horse Day, when Jim called me to tell me Heighten was going crazy. He was mad, kicking at the fence, pawing at the ground, pacing in his stall like a maniac. Not eating. Jim called the vet, called Abel, then gave Heighten 10 cc-s of banamine, hosed him down, and started to walk him. I got in my car and rushed over. Abel did too.

The vet got to the ranch around 4:30 or a little before, after we’d been walking Heighten for some time. He was nibbling at the old, dried Bermuda on the ground but wouldn’t touch the fresh alfalfa or Timothy or Bermuda we offered him. Odd.

At one point, we let him loose in the arena and let him roll. He hasn’t gone out in the arena for some time, due to a) his bad leg that makes getting up difficult for him and b) the fact that he always seemed to want to go home directly after putting him out. But on Sunday afternoon, he rolled and got himself up with next to no difficulty but resumed his pacing. He seemed nervous, but the banamine was kicking in and he began to get interested in food.

Regardless, despite a relatively normal rectal exam and the fact that he was somewhat more like himself, we decided to have Dr. T tube him, probably around 4:45 or 5pm.

We put Heighten back in his stall and cleaned out his feeder so he couldn’t snack while still under sedation. We also gave him a tube of Gastrogard. Jim has long suspected Heighten has ulcers, and though we couldn’t be totally sure, we hypothesized that he might have had a little flare up. And Heighten, being a bit of a baby that he is, reacted to the sudden pain with anger and bewilderment.

“Just keep an eye on him,” said Dr. T as she got all of her supplies together and prepared to leave. “I’m on call all night, so give me a ring if anything goes wrong.”

We nodded and thanked her and she left, all of us feeling much better.

I had no idea that we’d be calling her again within hours.

With Heighten on the mend, Jim and I talked a bit about him – getting him back on Gastrogard, making sure he gets some arena time for as long as he wants (even if it’s only for five minutes) – before I left, supposedly for the night.

I was in Target, grabbing some things for dinner, when my phone rang again.

My heart dropped when I saw Jim’s name.

“It’s Heighten,” he said as soon as I answered. “He’s bad again. The same as he was before he was tubed.”

Shit.

Heart racing, I sped back to the ranch. It was sunset – around 6:30 or 7 – as I trotted up the wash to the walkway between the breezeway and the arena, where Abel was walking a visibly distressed Heighten.

Pawing. Refusing to eat. Looking around anxiously. Pawing again on the dirt. And again. And again.

That damn pawing.

I hope I go the rest of my life without hearing that awful sound.

I could see it in his eyes as he looked around.

Something is wrong. Please, help me.

Jim got the vet back on the phone. She was at another colic emergency, of all things, but said she’d be there as soon as we could.

I texted Shana and Denise – our ranch managers – and let them know what was going on before putting Heighten back in the arena so he could walk around. Around 7:30, right before the vet showed up again, he lay down and looked somewhat comfortable (head up, looking around him still), so we let him stay down.

Just as Dr. T pulled up, he put his head down and started twitching. Whether the pain was that bad or he was trying to get back up, I don’t know, but it almost looked like his body was seizing.

“Doc!” I yelled and she came hurtling out of her truck. The words, “Let’s try to get him up,” weren’t even out of her mouth before Heighten had – in one astonishingly powerful movement, pushed himself off the ground and stood before us calmly.

Bewildered, I grabbed his halter and put the lead rope back on him as Jim started talking to the vet.

“It’s like we never even tubed him,” he said. “I’m thinking….”

“Yep,” said Dr. T, and I felt my heart drop again.

I’d heard of intravenous bagging before. I’d never actually seen it happen.

Over a decade ago, Heighten had coliced and had been hooked up to IV fluids all night long in an effort to save his life. Jim said it wasn’t until dawn – after staying with him all night – he knew Heighten was going to live.

This was to be an instant replay.

We brought Heighten to the front half of Chiquita’s stall, above which hangs a lead rope that Jim says he hates with a burning passion. I walked an increasingly frantic Heighten in circles outside of it while Jim and the doc got a ladder and hung two bags of fluid front that lead rope. Then, after a shitload of sedation, Heighten calmed down and we brought him inside so the vet could insert a catheter with a port for more sedatives that hooked up to the bagged fluids.

And, god love them, at that time Shana and Denise showed up right as we were attaching hoses to ports and the doc was sewing in the catheter in Heighten’s neck/vein, around 8pm. They’re both nurses and while Jim and I gave each other a look of confusion as the vet explained how to change the bag and clamp on/off the fluids, those two nodded and assured us when the time came to change everything they’d be on it.

With the first two bags of fluids set to drip into his system really quickly (there’s a medical term for that but I can’t remember it), the vet left the ranch for the second time and Jim, Shana, Denise, and I settled down in chairs outside Chiquita’s stall (Chiquita herself shut safely in the “outer” portion of her stall) to watch our boy.

Under sedation, he was very calm and while he walked around a bit, he seemed worlds better than he’d been just a few hours ago. He watched us a bit while the four of us sat and talked and drank some soda leftover from Saturday and I stole a few pieces of turkey from Jim’s fridge and shared them with Lee.

It was dark then and the weather couldn’t have been more than 75 degrees. The stars were out and the crickets were chirping and the night was warm and perfect and as I sat there, watching Heighten improve steadily, talking comfortably with three people I loved dearly, I thought that we were out of the woods.

Here’s the thing about that, though.

The moment you let your guard down just a bit, the moment you think all is well, Life has a terrible, terrible habit of reaching towards you and grabbing you by the throat.

At 10pm, I assured Shana and Denise – who run the place on Mondays during my office days – that all was well and that they should go rest up before they had to be back here around 8am. I could tell they wanted to stay, but with some convincing, they decided all would be well and left. They changed the bags before they did, and with two full bags of fluid in Heighten and another two slowly on their way into his system, we all hoped for the best.

Jim and I sat watching Heighten for a few minutes longer and I kept thinking I’d rise too and get in my car and go home. I don’t know what possessed me to keep sitting in that chair. Instinct, maybe. Because around 10:30 or so, Heighten started pacing again. Pawing. He lay down and rolled and got up again and resumed his anxious pacing.

We caught him – with some difficulty – and gave him some domosedan. He calmed down and I took the opportunity to untangle the IV. Still pawing. Still hurting, somewhere, somehow. Some time between 11 and 11:30 we gave him another sedative in the port in his catheter, xylazine. Dr. T had left us a few and warned us, “If you stab yourself with the xylazine, call 911.”

I kept Heighten as still as I could while Jim carefully gave him the xylazine then got the hell out of the small stall. He lay down again, this time comfortably. At 11:45 we got the vet back on the phone to give her an update. At midnight, I left the ranch for Chaparral to go get some more sedatives in case we happened to need them.

I pulled up to the back of the vet’s where Dr. T was replenishing her truck.

“How is he?” she asked as she gave me the bag of shots. I sighed.

“He’s still pawing,” I said. “Still hooked up to the bags though. He keeps pacing.” I hesitated. “I… I don’t have a good feeling about this, to be honest.”

Dr. T looked at me anxiously. “You’re doing everything possible for him,” she said. “Call me with any updates, okay?”

When I got back around 12:30am, Heighten was on his feet and calm again. Despite having the new sedatives, we agreed that we wouldn’t sedate him again in the hopes that if he had another attack of pain he would work through it.

Here’s where everything becomes a haze, like something out of a living nightmare.

Heighten started to wake up and as he did, his pawing returned. His anxiety. He paced and paced and paced around and around and around that stall, stopping every now and then like he was going to roll, tangling his IV attached from to the bags hanging from the lead rope dangling from the barn ceiling.

Jim and I watched in silence, helplessness.

“Should we sedate him again?” I asked half-heartedly at one point and Jim shook his head. “Let’s see if he can power through it,” he said. “And we can maybe see whether it’s getting better or worse.”

At one point I put a blanket in the dirt on the ground outside the stall and lay down to try and sleep for 20 minutes or so. Lee – who refused point blank to go sleep in the house – put his wet nose on my face anxiously until I assured him I was fine. When I closed my eyes I could hear the pawing and the pacing. If I close my eyes even now I still hear it.

Jim got up from his chair and turned the barn lights off. Heighten – fully out of sedation now – continued to pace, but it somehow didn’t seem like he was in pain anymore. With the lights off, he could check on everything around him. So he’d go peek in one corner at one end of the shed then walk to the other corner to look at the other end. Like he just wanted to see what was going on. Back and forth, back and forth, around and around, like a merry-go-round straight out of hell.

We rushed in at one point to untangle his IV cords, exhaustion and anxiety taking over as we barked orders at each other and Heighten – trying his hardest to listen to us – stood still, trembling, while we tried to untangle that stupid, horrible tube that he’d twisted around and around and around with his walking.

After we’d done what we could we got out of there he lay down again, on his bad side. But he’d shortened that damn tube so much that when he lay down, he pulled open one of the bags of fluid. And – like things couldn’t be worse – it started dripping on him. That must have been around 2:30.

Rush to turn on the lights. Grab the halter. Fumble with the ladder. Jim – on the wall of the stall – reaching to grab the bag to try and release it. Heighten on his bad side, eyes scared, sides heaving, that bag dripping steadily on his side.

The image is forever burned in my memory as one of the worst things I’ve ever seen and ever will see.

It was then we called it.

We got the vet on the phone. We asked her to come back out.

We decided we were going to end it.

We stood on the edge of that abyss and looked into Heighten’s eyes as he lay in the stall and thought for sure he was telling us it was over.

And as we waited for the vet to come we sat in numb disbelief, Heighten raising his head every now and then to look at Jim, and Jim gently reassuring him to lay back down, because everything was alright, it was all going to be alright. All will be well again, he said. Lay your head back down, my brother. I’ve got your back. All is well.

And I sat and thought of how many people loved Heighten and could I call them all at 2:45 in the morning and what would I say and how would I describe the horror of the night and how – how? – could this have happened and what was really going on with our baby boy and was it something we did and was it something we could have prevented and our 32, our 32 and U that had been our theme for Help a Horse Day just the day before, was going to be 31 and how could this be happening and maybe this was just a dream, a horrible, horrible dream….

The vet got there around 3. Jim and I stared blankly at her when she said, “Let’s get him up. Let’s get him back to his stall and see how he does.”

What about the IV? I thought stupidly, but the vet unhooked him, despite the one unbroken bag not being empty yet, and out of nowhere, out of nothing… he was standing again. I dazedly grabbed the lead rope and lead him back to his stall.

Heighten still paced a bit but something in his attitude shifted when he realized he was home. He wasn’t pawing nearly as much. Jim looked at him and said, “I’m starting to think the pacing was an emotional thing. He woke up and realized he wasn’t home. He got stressed out.”

Dr. T nodded as she listened to his heartrate. “That’s definitely an option,” she said. “And the stress could contribute to other things going on with him.”

She listened for gut sounds, then did another rectal exam. Heighten stood still, eyes alert, breathing normally – well, as normally as one can breathe with a hand up your ass (TMI? Sorry not sorry) – and Dr. T eventually declared, “Everything feels normal. In fact, better than the first exam last night.”

I let out a breath, astonished, and Jim put his arms around Heighten’s neck.

“What caused him to go crazy?” we all wondered. “What could have caused this?”

We threw around ideas. He did colic for a time, then the bagging with IV fluids helped, but he was stressed upon being in a new stall hence why he paced so much all night. His ulcers acted up suddenly and the pain caused him to get angry around 3:30 and caused flare ups now and then. Later on, Jim wondered if Sunny had gone into her first heat, making Heighten – a gelding we suppose was proud-cut – crazy. It was colic season. Maybe it was just something in the air. Something in the hay.

We had no clue.

But we did know one thing.

Heighten – who an hour before looked like he was on his last leg – stood in his stall with authority and not without unease to be sure, but without pain.

It was a mystery.

It still is.

We talked about getting him tested for ulcers in the next few weeks, but we’re pretty sure – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that ulcers are very likely. We gave him another tube of Gastrogard and left his stall so he could resume exploring his stall like he’d never seen it before.

“He’s just been through some trauma,” the vet said. “It’ll probably take some time for him to settle back down.”

We agreed, and the vet left around 3:45. Heighten paced a bit in his stall, but without the same amount of urgency, and without pawing. Without pain. Without fear.

Just a bit anxious.

But I mean, hell.

I’d be anxious too.

At 4 with Heighten on the mend, I left. I was terrified of getting another call telling me he was bad again, but at that point I was going off adrenaline and about 15 minutes of Lee-interrupted sleep.

I slept for a few hours then called Jim at 7:30 for an update.

And he said Heighten – though still walking around in his stall just a little bit – was calmer, happier, better.

I went back at around 8:30 to see for myself.

You know how the sun seems brighter when you’re tired? It was like that when I walked onto the ranch again.

And there in his stall, in the bright, bright sun in contrast to the image of my head of his silhouette against the starry sky hours before, stood Heighten.

Impossibly.

Bravely.

Surely.

Jim looked exhausted but beside himself with happiness.

“Over a decade ago, when we bagged him, I didn’t know if he was going to make it until dawn,” he said, looked at Heighten who was nibbling slowly on a handful of Bermuda. “And today, just before dawn broke, we won again.”

As of today, Tuesday, Heighten is still recovering from what we are guessing was a combination of colic and ulcer-related pain and extreme anxiety. He’s still nibbling at food and sleepy. We think his throat might hurt a bit from being tubed and it was suggested by Dr. T we take a look at his teeth. We’ll probably arrange to have them floated within a few weeks.

In the meantime, he’s on Gastrogard for some time in addition to his usual Neigh-Lox and we’re offering him all three types of hay along with plenty of bran mashes to coax his appetite.

And just as I look back on that god-awful night in a daze, I find myself looking at him as though not totally sure he’s real.

But he is.

He is strong and brave and on the mend.

And he is alive.

He is alive.

When I’d gotten back from the vet’s around 12:30am Monday morning, I brought from my car a small book I keep on me all the time, a book I love dearly. It’s called Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance by Joseph Marshall, and it is a collection of Lakota stories that piece together a beautiful perspective of dealing with the harsh realities of life.

At one point during the night, out of nothing but desperation for something to do other than focus on our misery, I read aloud some parts of it to Jim and Heighten.

I think Marshall’s words from the prologue sum up everything.

~

“A young man asked his grandfather why life had to be so difficult sometimes. This was the old man’s reply.

“Grandfather says this: ‘In life there is sadness as well as joy, losing as well as winning, falling as well as standing, hanger as well as plenty, badness as well as goodness. I do not say this to make you despair, but to teach you reality. Life is a journey sometimes walked in light, sometimes in shadow.’

“Grandfather says this: ‘You did not ask to be born, but you are here. You have weakness as well as strengths. You have both because in life, there is two of everything. Within you is the fill to win, as well as the willingness to lose. Within you is the heart to feel compassion as well as the smallness to be arrogant. Within you is the way to face life as the fear to turn away from it.’

“Grandfather says this: “Life can give you strength, Strength can come from facing the storms of life, from knowing loss, feeling sadness and heartache, from falling into the depths of grief. You must stand up in the storm. You must face the wind and the cold and the darkness. When the storm blows hard you must stand firm, for it is not trying to knock you down, it is really trying to teach you to be strong.’

“Grandfather says this: ‘Being strong means taking one more step toward the top of the hill, no matter how weary you may be. It means letting the tears flow through the grief. It means to keep looking for the answer, though the darkness of despair is all around you. Being strong means to cling to hope for one more heartbeat, one more sunrise. Each step, no matter how difficult, is one more step closer to the top of the hill. To keep hope alive for one more heartbeat at a time leads to the light of the next sunrise, and the promise of a new day.’

“Grandfather says this: ‘The weakest step toward the top of the hill, toward sunrise, toward hope, is stronger than the fiercest storm.’

“Grandfather says this: ‘Keep going.’”

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