Saving Joey’s Sight: Week 5 & the Journey Home

Joey’s battle with corneal ulcers continues.

Meagan DeLisle’s beloved OTTB Joey was diagnosed with corneal ulcers in mid-July. If you missed earlier installments of this ongoing story, catch up with Week One and Week Three.

We are in Week Five of treatment now and unfortunately trips to the equine clinic rather than my training barn feel like the norm. I have grown quite close to the staff at Huck Equine Clinic and I am going to miss visiting and laughing with them frequently, but I am ready to bring my darn horse home. This journey continues to be a roller coaster, tossing me around what feels like a loose fitting but somewhat secure harness as we navigate the loops of treatment. I have never once doubted the medical team tasked with saving Joey’s sight, but there have been moments where I let the “what ifs” take over my mind and scare the holy bajeezus out of me.

I have always known that Joey was a special horse. Heck, he was jumping 2’6”-2’9” the day before we took him to the vet and found that his vision was horribly impaired due to the ulcers. He has never been a quitter and he has always carried his trademark spunk and spook with him everywhere he goes. As his treatment dragged on, I realized just how important this horse was to me and felt even more determined than before to conquer these nasty ulcers.

Eyeballs Officially Terrify Me

While I do not rejoice in the fact that I am not the only horse owner going through this experience, I have surrounded myself with the other ulcer cases at the clinic. There seems to be an unusually high traffic of them coming in and out, all at various stages. Some, not so bad. Others, horrifying.

While visiting Joey last week I pulled in to the barn only to watch my wet unload a friend’s horse out of the clinic trailer. She too had a nice sized ulcer; however, hers was smack in the middle of the eye. I stayed with the mare that evening as Dr. Martha Huck-Miller swabbed her for fungus and inserted the lavage tube (not a pretty process, but definitely neat to watch). She has to stay at the clinic for a while, but we are hoping she will have a positive outcome as they seem to have caught it early on in development.

Another more extreme case that has rolled in recently is a young foal whose eyeball is LITERALLY melting out of its head. Dying tissue is sloughing off on its own and the clinic has been fighting diligently to save the eye.

Before Joey’s ulcers, I never really concerned myself with equine optometry. I monitored legs and back and hips like crazy, but after this experience and becoming familiar with just how sensitive the eye can be I predict that I will be “that boarder” at the barn now — always monitoring the conditions to which my horse’s eyes are exposed. I have done some mad hunting for indestructible fly masks as a preventative for scratches and punctures, but deep down I know that you can’t keep horses wrapped in bubble wrap all of the time. Thankfully, I have learned a lot about the equine eye and feel I can go confidently back into the real world and use this knowledge to be a proactive owner.

You can tell Joey feels much better when he comes in for his daily checkup. He is constantly begging the vet and her team for treats and attention… spoiled horse. Photo by Meagan DeLisle.

After all, that image of the poor foal with the melting eye won’t leave my mind any time soon…

Don’t Jinx It

Doc told me to preface every statement with “knock on wood” so I wouldn’t jinx us, so here it goes: knock on wood, we are seeing immense amounts of progress in Joey’s case. We began backing him off the bute and banamine for pain and slowly reduced the frequency of his antibiotics. We removed the pumps and ceased overnight treatments and monitored closely to see how the eyes would hold up.

Each eye has a GIANT blood vessel growing through the tissue of the ulcer which is pretty freaking cool. I have come to love blood vessels and all of the good they can do for a healing wound. Watching the vessels creep inward from the corner of the eye and overtake the ulcer has been pretty neat. Each day you could see the distance in which they crawled and they grew from bright red and angry to a more stable and nurturing pink.

The best news I have received so far is that the visible scar tissue on each eye is already becoming more transparent. I went into this journey knowing that most likely Joey would leave with some sight limitations due to remaining scar tissue. A few weeks back we took a good look at both eyes and agreed that he would have some limitations with his peripheral vision, but with proper training and effective riding he could overcome that and continue on with his jumper career. There was the potential that the scar tissue would begin to thin and lighten in a year or two, but to hear my vet say that it is already starting to heal itself brought tears to my eyes. I know many people argue that horses don’t enjoy sport as it isn’t natural to them, but this horse truly loves his job and knowing that he could return to it with little or no limitations is heartwarming.

This crazy, goofy, charming, outrageous, horse has turned into the best partner and teacher I could have asked for and knowing he may overcome this with little to no visual limitations brings me joy. Photo by Cassie Zimmerman

Joey continues to remain in high spirits and be one of the favorite patients at the clinic. He does not seem to be in any sort of pain with the reduction of the pain medications and happily greets you at his stall door for a little bit of loving. He has adjusted to 24/7 stall life much better than I thought, but I anticipate that he will go just a little crazy when he returns to his pasture with his friends.

The Best News of All

My world stopped last night mid-Big Bang Theory binge session when an email from my vet came through telling me that she thinks it’s safe for Joey to make the trip home and finish his treatment at the barn. I turned into a big blubbering baby into my popcorn bowl as I kept re-reading the email as if the words would up and change on me.

Joey is coming home.

We started this journey hoping for no more than six weeks of hospitalization and here we are, five weeks later and it looks like if everything plays out that we will meet that goal. He will still have his tubes in and require treatment four or five times a day, but my horse will be home.

Having a month and a half out of training definitely put a damper in our competitive plans; however, none of that matters after this experience. I remember getting that phone call five weeks ago and thinking, “there goes our plans to show at our first rated show in October” and looking back, that seems so silly compared to the other concerns I picked up along the way. Our fight is still not over; we still have obstacles to overcome and I have to learn to ride Joey with his somewhat limited peripheral vision, but my horse is heading home.

And I plan on throwing a freaking party.

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