is the grass any bluer...

is the grass any bluer...
on the other side?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Equine ER

Reading Leslie Guttman's book, Equine ER:  Stories from a Year in the Life of an Equine Veterinary Hospital is like watching ER on television back in the good ol’ days when George Clooney was still its star.  You don’t want to know what happens if it’s not a success story, but you watch anyway, unable to turn your attention away because the story has you in its grips. Guttman’s nonfiction work is an intelligent but sensitive look at the daily operations of Rood & Riddle Animal Hospital.  For those who are unfamiliar, Rood & Riddle is located here in Lexington and is the premier veterinary facility for Thoroughbreds – or other horses – in medical distress.  Horses’ natures are so delicate, it only takes one wrong turn of the foot or the digestive tract to create an equine emergency, and Guttman’s work highlights the veterinary treatment of these powerful but fragile animals whose owners make the Bluegrass their home. 

"This book is about the year I spent starting in spring 2008 following around the veterinarians at Rood & Riddle, one of the most prominent equine hospitals in the country.  It is about these veterinarians' world and the horse-smitten clients and four-footed patients within it. Hospitals are places where life turns on a dime, and this one is no different: I saw lives saved, lost, and remade. I also saw that alongside the advanced veterinary medicine being performed exists something timeless about the job of an equine veterinarian … found in experiences such as the small miracle of watching a foal ... get up and walk for the first time, wobbly but persevering. Or in the ritual of an equine vet making a farm call in spring, his or her truck rattling up to an old black barn, past paddocks colored kelly green from the rain and dotted with mares and foals.”

Guttman was approached to write the book in January of 2008.  "I was here in Lexington visiting my mom from my home in the Bay Area when I connected with Eclipse Press/Blood-Horse in January 08. Equine ER was Eclipse Press' idea and they were looking for someone to write the book. They wanted a book that would connect with not only horse people but a general audience. After they saw my newspaper and magazine work, they thought I'd be a good fit, even though I'm not 'horse person.' Although I rode a bit growing up here, and have been on every trail ride from Half Moon Bay to Lake Tahoe, I have never owned a horse."

"Although my work has been diverse – writing stories on everything from at-risk kids to the environment – thematically, I've always been attracted to stories where there is something great at stake and where there is also a lot of emotion. A hospital is a setting where there is a great deal at stake, even a hospital for horses, which was part of the pull for me to write it."

"I had written medical and science stories before but nothing of this depth. The learning curve was steep for the medical reporting. I read many, many books and spent hours researching the various operations, issues, conditions, and procedures. The vets helped me by answering countless questions. Every medical aspect of the book was triple-fact-checked: first by me, then the vet whom the chapter is about, and by another vet at R&R, Dr. Bryan Waldridge, who volunteered to help me out."
When asked how she convinced Rood & Riddle to allow her to observe their operations, Guttman said, "The clinic was open to it as long as I just observed and didn't touch anything sterile. After a while, I was at the clinic so much that I kind of became wallpaper for them; they got used to having me around, which was great, because then they didn't edit what they said."

One of the big messages Guttman delivers is that horses are very powerful but fragile creatures, but it's sometimes it's a tossup to determine in what ways they are most delicate -- is it more so via their feet/ankles/legs or their colic-prone digestive system, or are both equally integral to their overall health?  "Before I wrote the book, I had no idea how accident-prone and delicate all horses can be because of their susceptibility to paddock accidents – stepping in groundhog holes, running into fences, etc – and because of the mobility of their digestive tracts, which predisposes them to colic."

"As far as feet/ankles/legs, if you're talking solely about Thoroughbreds and racing, that brings in the whole debate about whether today's breeding practices are creating horses that are more fragile than those that raced 20 or 30 years ago. I talk about this at length in the last chapter in the aftermath of Eight Belles' death. I don't feel like I know enough about breeding myself to make a definitive judgment, but many horse people believe both what's known as breeding for speed and breeding for horses that look good in the sales ring have made for a more fragile racehorse. However, they also add that other factors are equally important, such as how owners and trainers individually treat their horses. Unfortunately, no data exists to compare the breakdown rate between today's horses and those of the past."

"Many of the stories in Equine ER are about horses other than Thoroughbred racehorses. But because this is the Bluegrass, they are well represented. With all the risk involved in being in the Thoroughbred industry, what I came away with is that no matter how much of a business it is, in the end, it is run by dreamers who can't do anything else, even if they've tried. In that way, it's like being a writer."

Why should Ace readers buy your book, what would you like them to know about your effort that will lead to a greater awareness of the life of a veterinary hospital like R&R?

Guttman was certainly inspired by the lessons learned in her year spent observing life in a veterinary hospital.  "What surprised and moved me about being at the clinic was learning and seeing that a horse's desire to live is just as important as it is with a human patient suffering from a major illness or severe trauma. LIke at the track, the odds don't determine the outcome. Definitely some life lessons there. Equine ER is for horse lovers, animal lovers, people who love hospital dramas, and anyone intrigued and interested in the bond between people and animals."

In addition, she wanted to give readers an inside look "at this unique pack of passionately committed workaholic equine vets who are also very funny. The place reminds me of TV shows like Grey's Anatomy, House, or Scrubs, but with horses. And you just can't believe how hard these vets work and how high their standards are. I found it consistently inspiring. They treat 11,000 horses a year in the clinic, another 5,000 out in the field, and in 2008 performed approximately 6,500 surgeries."

"One way I describe the book is Animal Planet meets James Herriot. Over and over throughout the year I met people – interns, vets, clients, and owners – who were keenly influenced as young people by the James Herriot books. Many of them became veterinarians or got into the horse world because of them. One of my intentions with Equine ER is that it be inspiring in the same way ... and that it is also a postcard from the Bluegrass in the same way Herriot's books are postcards from the English countryside, describing the landscape, people, and unique farm way of life. I wanted people who didn't live in the Bluegrass to smell of the air, see the miles of kelly green paddocks, and meet people whose lives are still defined by the seasons. Even with all its stresses, it is a more peaceful life than the technology-driven one so many of us live."
Throughout the book, Guttman's careful observations give bullet points in such rapid succession, it seems impossible to remember them all, but she breaks out of the starting  gate with a vivid prologue recounting the unforgettable history of the 2008 Derby, when Big Brown made his move in the middle of the pack to win, and the filly Eight Belles, finished second.  Guttman describes the heartbreak as news came to the Rood & Riddle facility that Eight Belles had broken both of her front ankles, and the decisions that had to be made within seconds to euthanize her.  Guttman was at the vet hospital on Derby day, a day she appropriately describes: "For horse people everywhere, but especially in the Bluegrass, Derby Day is a religious holiday. Thousands of people were preparing to watch the race at Churchill Downs or on TV, and between taking care of patients some Rood & Riddle staff members would be able to catch the race in the admissions office. Although they didn't know it yet, those staff members would see the death of Eight Belles, the charcoal gray filly who would break down after finishing second and be euthanized immediately because of the depth of her injuries.  Her shocking death on national television would bring significant changes to the racing world, with equine vets such as Rood & Riddle's Dr. Larry Bram age playing key roles in the debate and discussion the filly's death ignited.”

Eight Belles was the first Thoroughbred to die in 134 years of the Kentucky Derby, and although her tragic story reverberated in the hearts of horse lovers everywhere, the event caused the industry to reconsider some options and changes were and are being made to make tracks and racing safer for these sturdy but delicate athletes.

Guttman’s account takes the reader on the journey from the veterinary hospital’s humble beginnings in Dr. Bill Rood’s “one-man show in his garage, the hospital’s origins in1980” to its contemporary setting on the sprawling “twenty-four acres of what used to be part of the old Nursery Stud Farm, where Man o’War was born on a spring day in 1917.  The grounds are lush, with plantings such as lilac and forsythia bushes, azaleas and Russian sage, and white pines, red oaks, magnolias, and spruce trees. The practice has more than 50 vets and a staff of over 200 people: nursing techs, farriers, barn crew, business staff, administrative assistants and more.   

Rood & Riddle’s beginnings, however, were modest.  “The staff then consisted of one retired neighbor stocking the pharmacy and a former waitress Rood had hired away from a Mexican restaurant to be its only tech.  Rood first met Dr. Tom Riddle in 1981; both men were looking for another equine veterinarian with whom to form a partnership. They teamed up the following year, and opening the hospital in its current location in 1986. It was about a quarter of the size it is now.” 

Equine ER is replete with photographs and chapter after chapter of inspirational stories of success, perseverance and acceptance, as well as providing a window into the world of decisions within and without the operating rooms of some of the world’s best veterinary facility.  The chapters are stories of horses who are not necessarily racing or foaling, though, as there are depictions of a host of conditions suffered by geldings and barren mares as well.  Guttman has changed the names in some cases of the owners and horses to respect the wishes of those who wish to remain anonymous.  The chapters give a peek into the very human side of the vets who provide care.

For example, there is the story of Piaff, a gelding who suffered from a neurological condition that caused him to be wobbly and his treatment by Dr. Stephen Reed (whose veterinary students refer to as “a god”).   Piaff had endured the journey on his side the entire ten hours it took to get him to the hospital: He'd tried to get up several times when the owner stopped to check on him, but he was too weak. It's not good for a horse to be down that long; they can't take full, deep breaths, or eat, drink, urinate, or defecate normally. It took about ten hospital staff members to get him out of the trailer, with Piaff sedated and pulled on an emergency glide (a large sheet of hard green plastic).

The mood was tense among everyone in Piaff's stall.  "Get a bucket of water," said Reed to a tech standing by the door. "Something normal, something he might relate to. He's kind of trying to move his lips. I don't think he's awake just yet." Water was fetched, but Piaff wouldn't drink.

"We have to look out for his hind legs," Reed said. "If they're caught underneath, he'll go back down." The vet gave the go-ahead, and tech Megan Howard started raising and lowering the hoist again in tiny increments. But soon, Piaff's legs started to crumple and the horse began to spin around.

"Stop, STOP!" yelled Reed, walking toward Piaff's left side. The vet's head came up to the horse's back. Howard stopped the hoist. "Down, just a mite," said Reed; she complied. "Let him balance, guys!" Reed said to the interns . . . ‘I don't mean to be so bossy,’ he added, and everyone assured him it was OK. They knew he was just worried about the horse getting injured.”

Piaff’s story is just one of dozens Guttman relates to give a clear picture of the loving care the veterinarians at Rood & Riddle devote to patients in their care.  The book is certain to be scooped up with great interest as the horse world readies itself for the Breeders’ Cup and next year’s road to the Derby, which of course, will be followed by the World Equestrian Games presented by Alltech right here in the heart of our gorgeous home with the rolling hills and grass so filled with limestone, it’s called the Bluegrass.  As we prepare for the visitors that will certainly be watching the WEG activities, Guttman’s nonfiction work is a must-read for those who want to know what goes on behind the scenes before and after the best of the best equine athletes perform for the world.

Where:  Keeneland Gift Shop
When:  Sunday, October 25, 11 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
What:   Author Leslie Guttman will be signing copies of her book on Equine ER:  Stories from a Year in the Life of an Equine Veterinary Hospital

Guttman will also be signing copies at Ace Gallery Hop at Woodland Computers,
November 20, 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

===============ABOUT THE AUTHOR=============

Leslie Guttman was born in upstate New York, into a family with a love of books and of the public library, and grew up in Lexington, Kentucky.  She received a degree in journalism from Indiana University at Bloomington and also studied at the University of California at Berkeley. She worked at the San Francisco Chronicle as both an editor and writer, and her work also has appeared in such publications as the Washington PostSalon, and Orion.  In addition, Leslie has worked at Wired magazine, and her public radio commentary has been broadcast on KQED-FM in San Francisco and nationally on “Marketplace.”

Guttman has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding journalism, as well as a “Salute to Excellence” award by the National Association of Black Journalists.  She has guest-lectured at college journalism programs in both San Francisco and the Bluegrass. 

Leslie currently lives in Lexington. Equine ER is her first book.

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