A veterinarian determined to solve a colic conundrum

How a special horse named John gave me the confidence to practice colic surgery and save dozens of horses every year.
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Jan 01, 2014

When my horse colicked, I found out there was no one within four hours of Lamesa who could perform a colic surgery. Unfortunately, because of this, he died. That's when I decided that I would learn to do colic surgery and save other horses that couldn't make the lengthy trip to see a veterinary surgeon.


ILLUSTRATION BY MATT COLLINS
I always wanted to do colic surgeries, but I knew they were very difficult and required a level of expertise that West Texas hadn't known before. This region I would eventually call my home was left hanging when it came to colic problems.

Learning to perform colic surgery was more than just a spur-of-the-moment decision on my part. It was part of my mission to bring the best care that veterinary medicine allowed to the horses of West Texas. It required learning a lot of things that many veterinarians are not willing to attempt. But I was determined, and here was my chance.

Weeks later, it was a normal Thursday evening when the phone rang and the caller let me know that a colicked horse was on its way to me.

John was 16 years old. He was a horse that disabled and mentally handicapped children could ride as a type of therapy, giving them a chance to establish the human-animal bond. I didn't take my responsibility for him lightly. This was a horse that several kids loved deeply—and I would perform my first colic surgery on him.

I told Jenny, John's owner, that I hadn't done this before and that there were people four hours away who were probably better at it than me. She looked at John as he suffered, and then looked back at me. She told me to do my best. She didn't think John would make it four more hours.

So I went to work. I called in my friends and technicians, and we brought our talents together to work a miracle on ol' John. It was incredibly tough. John had an enterolith lodged in his transverse colon. That is one of the few pieces of horse guts that cannot be exteriorized and worked on. I found it quickly, but I had no idea how to cut that piece of gut open and remove the enterolith without contaminating the entire abdomen.

Anyway, I did my best to figure out a way to get that 4-pound petrified excrement out of there. I blocked off other segments of bowel with huck towels and lap sponges. Remember, I couldn't even see what I was working on. In fact, the mineralized turd was stuck in a segment of bowel that was about 3 feet away from the incision I had made in John's belly. It was a full arm's length deep in the abdomen and there was no way to see it, only feel.

As I was examining him, I could feel the weight of numerous disabled children on my shoulders. I could feel the eyes of everyone in the room watching me and wondering if there was any possible way to get such a blockage out of the bowel of an aged horse without contaminating and killing it. But there was no way I was going to give in to the pressure. Ol' John was going to live to be ridden again by those who loved him, and I was going to see to it.

I opened John's bowel and removed the stool from someplace so dark and deep that it was almost like it was in another world. Now his bowels were free to move again. But how was I going to sew up an 8-inch incision in a piece of bowel 3 feet away that I couldn't see? Oh man—huge pressure.

I had seen my world-famous mentor, Dr. Chuck Deyhle, suture things he couldn't see before. He had showed me how to use my hands without instruments as a tool to close tissue. I put around 50 sutures; I worked until my forearms were cramped and aching, and then I worked some more. Finally, it was done. I closed the muscle and skin of the abdomen. I told Jenny that the fate of John's life—whether or not John would fully recover—was up to God now.

For several years since then, I do about 150 colic surgeries a year—but John was my first. I watched him roll away from our clinic about two weeks after his surgery and was so thankful he had lived.

I don't know exactly how long John lived, but he was around for many years after. He had several complications as time went by, but we managed to keep him going. A huge number of deserving children got to ride that old saint—he was one tough rascal.

Dr. Bo Brock owns Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas.