Thursday, July 19, 2001
In the near 80-degree heat, Dr. Tim Eastman swelters inside khaki coveralls, the veterinarian''s version of scrubs. Squatting over Rocky, an anesthetized, lame Arabian, he slices a portion of tendon from the horse''s leg. The operation is necessary to treat a disease called Stringhalt, which causes Rocky''s hind legs to kick upwards when he trots instead of bending under him as it would in a normal gait.
"If we would have trotted him out for you, you would have seen his legs kicking his stomach, like a German soldier," says the 33-year-old Eastman, a towering strawberry blond with a youthful face.
Today, Eastman''s operating table is a grassy pasture. While Rocky lies on the ground, anesthesia slowly drips into a vein in his neck. Eastman removes the tendon and a portion of leg muscle in all of 15 minutes. Then he begins the more lengthy process of stitching up the incision, still hunched over, looking more like a kid digging for worms than a doctor with seven intense years of medical school behind him.
A year from now, Eastman will be performing procedures like this in his Steinbeck Country Equine Clinic''s new operating facility, the region''s only surgical theater for horses.
"I would have him up there on the table rather than squatting on the grass, and I would probably use gas anesthesia, which lasts seven or eight hours, rather than the IV drip," Eastman says.
Eastman, the only board-certified equine surgeon in Monterey County, is the brains and heart behind the center''s soon-to-be-built facility. This surgery is safe to perform on the grass, but for an emergency abdominal surgery or a bone fracture, an operating table is a must.
Currently, the closest facility employing surgeons certified by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons is at least three hours away, Eastman says. Many locals travel to a facility at UC Davis or to the Alamo Pintado Clinic in Santa Inez, south of San Luis Obispo.
"This area has had a need for a very long time for a surgical facility," Eastman says. "If you have a horse with an emergency, you have to travel three hours in any direction. Hundreds of horses have died over the years because there wasn''t a place closer. With abdominal emergencies such as colic, the horse won''t live three hours. Or if you need an emergency C-section, that foal is going to die in three hours."
At the California Rodeo in Salinas this week, the vets don''t expect to perform any intensive operations. Fortunately, they are most likely to be called upon to cure a stuffy nose on a desert-climate horse not accustomed to Monterey County''s foggy mornings. Or they may need to examine a wound incurred from riding in a trailer.
But should any critter need ultrasound on an injured muscle or emergency surgery on a broken limb, Eastman will be there along with doctors Kent Fowler and Alex Eastman.
"These animals are athletes of the highest caliber," Eastman says. "Their owners take good care of their animals, and they are willing to go the extra mile and pay for the surgery, and pay for the plate to fix a broken bone--whatever it takes to get them fixed."
The bucking broncs and bulls demand the best and the brightest in sports medicine. Which is why the Steinbeck Clinic vets will be waiting in the wings. They''ve been the official rodeo vets for longer than anyone can remember--at least 40 years.
Today''s crew represents a new breed of large-animal vet, and they have the gadgets and drugs to prove it. They are riding headlong into a new era of veterinary medicine, saddles blazing, leading the pack in high-tech advances.
According to local vets, the MoCo horse culture is shifting from brood mares and ranch horses to show horses and sport competitors. These animals mean big money for their owners, but only if they are in peak health and if they keep on winning. To ensure that the wins and the money keep on coming, more and more horse owners are willing to pay top dollar for high-tech surgeries--and surgeons who have the know-how to fix whatever ails these animals.
"Our typical clients have got a horse that''s an athlete," Eastman says. "So a lot of what we do is sports medicine. "This horse," he says, referring to Rocky who is still under, lying on the grass, "he''s a show horse. But he can''t show like this."
Today''s medical advances also give vets more preventatives and healing options. Lame legs and pregnancy problems can be diagnosed early through ultrasound pictures. Advanced sedatives make surgery easier and less dangerous for animals and vets alike. Improved inoculations and drugs can prevent and cure diseases. Laser surgery can remove tumors and fix respiratory ailments. Plates and screws can fix broken bones that previously would have spelled a death sentence for a horse.
Once the Steinbeck surgery center opens, all of the above will happen right here in Salinas.
"We will be the largest horse-vet facility in Monterey County once the surgery facility opens," Eastman says. "We''ll have an intensive clinic, an around-the-clock staff, laser surgery, an operating room, and a recovery room..." The visions almost dance in his eyes.
When the operating room doors do open, Dr. Alex Eastman, who happens to be Tim Eastman''s wife, hopes to return to the large-animal veterinary scene to work once a week at the hospital. Currently, she splits her time between Salinas'' Portola Animal Hospital and Los Coches animal clinic in Soledad working mostly on cats and dogs, and an occasional horse.
In the vets'' office at the Portola Animal Hospital, small-animal surgery books line the shelves, and photos of spouses, children and pets sit prominently on the desks.
Thirty-two-year-old Alex, a tiny brunette with a warm smile, says she''s a horse doctor at heart. Tim and Alex met when they were both veterinary students at UC Davis. While Tim completed his surgical residency at Texas A & M, Alex shuttled between Texas and southern California, working as a large-animal vet. After Tim passed the board exam and the couple decided to return to their home in Salinas, Alex jumped to small-animal practice so she and Tim would not have two incomes from the same place.
The high-tech advances in veterinary medicine made life easier for Alex, who as a woman, was working with sick horses that weighed about 10 times more than she did.
"It''s not so unusual anymore being a woman equine vet, but it used to be really unusual" she says. "They''ve really improved all the sedation for horses. It used to be just a strength thing. Women could do it for a while, but you just got so beat up."
Alex admits the switch from large animals to small was more challenging mentally than physically.
"I worked for a woman who was an equine practitioner for years and years in southern California, and she used to say, ''So-and-so used to be a horse practitioner, but she couldn''t hack it.'' So I didn''t want to feel like I couldn''t hack it."
She starts to miss the ponies around Rodeo time, "especially when I have to go to work, and Tim and Kent are off to the Rodeo." As a veterinary volunteer, she''ll be on call and at ringside as her schedule permits. Last year, she was able to watch most of the events.
"I was there for most of it, mostly in a spectator role," she says. "Maybe we looked at a barrel-racing horse, and one calf got hurt. It was fun, but it was very mellow from a veterinary perspective."
I say that I, too, took riding lessons when I was younger, and dreamed of becoming a vet.
"Most kids grow out of it," Alex smiles. "I guess I never did."
Neither did Dr. Kent Fowler, one of the 52 directors of the Salinas Rodeo and a veterinarian with 24 years of practice under his belt buckle.
In his own words, he was "pretty much predetermined" to become a vet. During his high school summer breaks, he shoveled manure and cleaned the stables for Dr. Gary Deter, the eldest vet at the Steinbeck Equine Center, who is retiring in August. As an undergrad at UC Davis, Fowler studied animal science, lived in the Alpha Gamma Rho house--the Ag Fraternity--and was an active member of the Rodeo Club.
"I was involved in it 24 hours a day, either riding with Dr. Deter, or involved with animals at home-- dairy heifers and bulls, steer, cows, horses, a flock of sheep and pigs."
Active in 4H and Future Farmers of America, Fowler showed his first animals at the Monterey County Fair when he was only 6.
"Purebred hogs from Hartnell--I helped my dad [Hartnell''s Dean of Agriculture] show them. They were considerably bigger than me."
After graduating from UC Davis'' School of Veterinary Medicine in ''77, he came to work for Dr. Deter and the Steinbeck Clinicr full-time.
The son of a Rodeo volunteer, Fowler''s been a rodeo enthusiast for a long time. "I''ve been involved in the Rodeo ever since I was born," he wisecracks.
Fowler, a 49-year-old Tom Selleck lookalike, has seen the future of vet medicine--and it''s increasingly high tech.
"It''s like all medicine," he says. "Everyone''s taking advantage of all the technological advances. It helps so much diagnostically that you just can''t not take advantage of it."
He lists ultrasound and its tremendous advantages in diagnosis and reproductive work as the most significant recent advances. Today, he''s performed four ultrasounds on brood mares to determine fertility, and two to check the legs of lame horses.
Now he''s using the clinic''s newest gadget, a Pneumatic Shockwave machine, on Pony, a sedated, chestnut-colored, Welsh-Spanish Barb cross, to speed up the healing process of his lame leg.
Kneeling over Pony, who''s sleeping on the grass, Fowler runs what looks like a wand with a metal ball on the end up and down Pony''s leg.
"It''s fed with an air compressor, and it''s sending pneumatic shocks to his leg. It does 10 impulses per second. We''re going to apply 2000, but it''s going to go quick.
"At this point, I wouldn''t even make the statement that a shock treatment is the best treatment, but it''s non-invasive and non-surgical, and we''re hoping that this could be an alternate to surgery."
While it''s still an experimental treatment, it''s been successful so far.
"This is Pony''s third treatment, and he''s getting a lot better, soundness wise," Fowler says. "After the first treatment, he was no longer lame, but that''s only half the battle. We want him sound, but we also want the tissue healed. And on the ultrasounds, his tissue looked better as well."
While Pony''s down, Fowler also stitches a Progesterone implant into Pony''s skin to release female hormones into his system and "mellow him out."
"He acts like a 7-year-old boy," says Tracy, Pony''s owner. "He''s a brat."
When Pony wakes up he will be lying on his side in a small, grassy pasture with the sun shining on his back and almost everything a healthy boy horse could want: In the field where he''ll come to, there''s a "jump dummy" complete with an "artificial vagina," or AV, used to collect semen from stallions.
Dr. Fowler will be inside the barn, performing more ultrasounds on brood mares whose owners are hoping to get one more foal in the oven before breeding season is over.
Standing up after squatting over Pony for longer than his knees would have preferred, there''s one small technicality that all the high-tech toys at Steinbeck County Equine Clinic can''t yet cure: "When your legs go to sleep out here," Fowler says. In a year, however, with the new surgery facility and operating table, dead legs will be a worry of the past. Fowler finishes stitching the Progesterone pouch into Pony, stands up and limps into the barn.