Time crawled by. Sally and Ron brought some food from their home, but the stress from watching her chestnut companion suffering as he was had killed any inkling of an appetite for Janice.
She walked Drifter as the sky blazed with orange, red and purple from the setting sun. She walked him through the plummeting temperatures of an early-March dusk and into the night as the stars began to twinkle overhead in the clear, inky sky.Janice lost track of time.
At some point, after the sky had grown dark, Ron and Sally went home again. They had kids to take care of. But Sally promised to be back soon and said to call if Dr. Hanson returned.
The light from the open barn door spilled out into the night, but it didn’t reach Janice and Drifter as they paced up and down, back and forth. She wanted to change the monotony of the pacing by walking along the edge of the field, but she didn’t want to leave the proximity of the barn. What if vet called?
Then Drifter sank to the ground, his legs curled under him, muzzle resting on the ground.
Janice panicked. She tugged on the lead, trying to coax Drifter back onto his feet. He lifted his head and stretched his neck, but refused to get up.
The more she tried to pull the horse to his feet and met with resistance, the more her panic grew. After five minutes of getting no results, she started yelling for help.
Her voice echoed through the countryside, an agitated cry for help that received no answer. Hot tears streaked her face, frosting over in the cold night air.
“Please, Drifter! Get up!” she sobbed to him. “Please get up. Please. We have to keep walking. Please.” Her voice wracked with the hiccups of her crying as she pleaded with Drifter to hold on, to live.
When her pleas fell flat, she left Drifter lying in the grass at the side of the drive and ran to the barn for the cordless phone. She hit the speed-dial for the vet’s office as she ran back to where Drifter lay puffing hot breath in the wintry air, head bowed, his eyes closed.
When the receptionist picked up at the office, Janice quickly explained her situation.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said, “Dr. Hanson is still on a call. I can have Dr. Brown call you back when he gets out of his procedure.”
In a flash Janice was hysterical. “My horse is dying!” she screamed into the phone. “I need a doctor!”
“Hold on,” the girl said. The phone clicked, and Janice stood with silence in her ear.
While she waited, she dropped to her knees in front of Drifter and hugged his big head. She stroked his ears, begging him to hold on for her. Telling him he was going to be ok.
The line picked up again. “This is Dr. Brown,” a strong male voice said.
“My horse is dying,” Janice wailed.
“Miss, I need you to calm down. You can’t help your horse if you’re hysterical. You need to calm down.”
Janice took several deep breaths. “Ok.”
“Now tell me what’s going on.”
“He laid down, and now he won’t get up,” she said.
“Ok,” Dr. Brown said, his voice soothing edges of Janice’s raw nerves. “You’ve been walking him for a long time. He’s probably just tired. Let him rest. As long as he doesn’t roll, he’s fine. If he tries to roll, get him up again.”
Janice sighed and wiped her tears away. “Ok.”
“Dr. Hanson is on her way back to the office. After she cleans up, she’ll be back out. Half-hour at the most. Ok? Stay calm.”
“Ok. Thank you.”
Janice hung up and took the handset back to the barn office. When she returned, she sat on the cold grass beside Drifter and stroked him. She spoke to him softly. “I love you, big guy,” she cooed. “You’re gonna be ok. You have to be ok. I love you.”
She was still sitting with him when Sally pulled up. Dr. Hanson was right behind her.
Janice pulled herself to her feet and went to talk to the vet, leaving Drifter where he lay. Dr. Hanson met her half-way.
“I’m going to do a TPR again. Then we’ll go from there,” the vet told Janice.
They walked back to Drifter, and working together the three women were able to get the horse to his feet. Janice led him to the barn so Dr. Hanson could work in the light.
His heart-rate was up to ninety beats per minute. His respiration was about forty breaths per minute, and his temperature was up to 103.5. In short, his condition was getting worse.
“I’d like to do a belly tap,” Dr. Hanson told Janice. “I use a needle to take fluid from the stomach. It gives me a more accurate idea of what’s going on inside.”
“Do whatever you have to do,” Janice said.
Dr. Hanson used a long needle and drew fluid out of Drifter’s stomach. It was pink and cloudy. She brought it to show Janice. “There’s blood in his stomach,” she said. “That tells me that his small intestine is starting to die. I’m afraid that he’s going to need surgery to help him. You have two options: Leesburg, or New Bolton.”
Janice listened to Dr. Hanson realizing that Drifter’s life was now on the line. “Well, I know I want New Bolton,” she said. Her trainer had said that she would always take the longer trip to New Bolton because of experiences she’d had at both facilities.
“Ok. I’ll call up there and talk to a surgeon before you make your final decision,” Dr. Hanson told her. She picked up the phone and dialed the surgery center.
After a long discussion with the surgeon on duty, involving a rundown of Drifter’s symptoms and vital signs and the initial cost for Janice, Dr. Hanson hung up. She turned to Janice. “Well, Dr. Gabbon agrees that the belly tap means that Drifter definitely needs surgery. He said the surgery starts at two-thousand dollars. That is the initial cost of putting Drifter on the table to open him up and see what’s going on. After they determine what needs to be done, they will call you and give you the options and costs from that point.”
Staring at the floor, Janice repeated the words that dashed her hopes on the sharp rocks that were the reality of financial burdens. “Two-thousand dollars,” she said. Then she looked Dr. Hanson in the eyes. “Two-thousand dollars? Just to open him up?”
“Yes. From there the cost goes up. Dr. Gabbon agrees that the belly tap indicates Drifter’s small intestine is dying. As with all surgeries, there are no guarantees, but Drifter’s chances are less. If you decide to go, we need to get him on the road as soon as possible.”
She paused, seeming to think through the situation again. Then she added, “It’s about a two-hour drive to New Bolton from here. He could sleep in the trailer. However, with his vitals so elevated, you have to be prepared for the possibility that he won’t make the trip.”
Janice sank into a chair. “I have to call my mom,” she said. “She’s the one paying.”
Sally and the vet left to give her privacy. She picked up the phone and dialed the long-distance number home. Her mother picked up on the second ring. “Hello?” This was not the first time Janice had called her mother during the day, so she was already prepped for the call.
“Janice, what’s going on? How is Drifter?”
“Not good. He needs surgery. I’d have to take him to New Bolton, at the University of Pennsylvania.”
“Oh, honey,” her mother sighed. “Did you get an estimate?”
Janice knew her mother would pay the bill for anything Drifter needed—within reason. Not for the first time, tears welled and spilled down her cheeks. Her voice was defeated as she told her mother what Dr. Hanson had said.
Her mother began crying, too. “Oh, baby. I’m so sorry. You decide what you want to do. I’ll pay for it.”
But Janice couldn’t bring herself to say “let’s do the surgery.” She didn’t want to put her mother in the position of paying such an astronomical bill with such a slim chance of success. And she didn’t want Drifter to suffer on a long trip that he might not live through.
Her silent tears became full-on sobs of despair. “I don’t want him to suffer, Mom. I don’t want him to suffer. He might not make the trip. Even if he did, his chances in surgery are slim. Oh, Mom, I don’t want to lose him!”
“I know, honey. But now you have to decide. I know it’s not easy. It’s never easy, but have to decide what you think is best for Drifter.”
“I know. I think I know what’s best, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”
“I know. Nothing will make it easier, Janice.”
“Ok. Thanks, Mom. I’m going to go talk to the vet. I’ll call you later.”
“Ok. I love you,” her mother said.
“Love you, too, Mom. Bye.”
“Bye.” Then the phone clicked into silence.
Janice went out into the barn aisle to find Sally and Dr. Hanson standing with Drifter. When they saw her tear-streaked face, eyes puffy from crying, they brought Drifter to her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and sobbed into his soft chestnut fur. The horse turned his head and nudged her with his nose.
“Do you know what you want to do?” Dr. Hanson asked.
“Yes.” Janice released her hug and faced the vet. “If his chances are so slim, I don’t want him to suffer anymore.” She began crying again.
“So, you don’t want to take him to New Bolton.” It was not a question.
“No. Not if he isn’t going to make it anyway. That’s not fair to him.”
“Ok.” Dr. Hanson placed her hand on Janice’s arm. “I need you to tell me what to do, Janice.”
“You want me to say it?” she cried.
“You have to tell me what to do. I can’t do anything without you telling me.” The look of anguish that faced her pushed her to help Janice say it. “Do you want me to euthanize Drifter? Just say yes or no.”
Janice dropped her gaze to the dirty floor, fresh sobs wracking her body. She nodded her head.
“I need you to say it, Janice.” When Janice lifted her head, all she could do was nod again, so Dr. Hanson repeated the question. “Do you want me to put Drifter to sleep peacefully? Take him out of his pain?”
This time she took Janice’s nod as a yes, knowing that the young woman couldn’t actually say it. “Alright. You spend some time with him. I’ll go get everything ready.”
“Can I stay with him?” Janice asked, finding her voice again. “How does this work? Will he be lying down? Can I hold his head in my lap?”
Dr. Hanson looked at her with sympathy. “I’m sorry, but he’ll be standing. I can’t have you near him when I give the injection because he might fall on you. Sometimes things happen, too that aren’t what an owner wants to see.”
“Oh,” Janice said, feeling dejected. In his last moments, she wouldn’t be able to be by Drifter’s side. The knowledge only deepened the wounds in her shattering heart.
Sally put comforting hands on her shoulders from behind. “I know a company that can dispose of his body for you.”
“I want to have him cremated,” Janice said. On this she was adamant. She didn’t want her beloved friend being thrown in a pit somewhere unknown. She also didn’t want him thrown in a crematorium with a bunch of other animals. “And I want his ashes back,” she added.
Sally and Dr. Hanson looked at each other. The vet seemed to think about it for a moment, then she said, “I can get the numbers of a couple places that may do a private cremation for you. That’s at the office, though, so I’ll leave them for you when you come in. I’ll also get the numbers of a few places that may haul him for you.”
“Ok. Thank you,” Janice said.
While Dr. Hanson went to her truck to get ready, Sally stayed with Janice. “I’m really sorry about this,” she said. “You haven’t had him very long, have you?”
“I got him when he was two,” Janice said. “He just turned nine, so I’ve had him for seven years.”
“Oh,” Sally was surprised. “I thought you just got him. When you told me about the other barn, I thought that was his first place with you.”
“No. He lived at home for a long time, but I wanted to bring him up here with me. I missed him.” Fresh tears stung her eyes as Janice thought about how she would now miss Drifter for the rest of her life. “He’s never been sick. Not one day. Now I’m going to lose him.”
“I’ll give you some time alone with him,” Sally said. Then she went into the office.
Janice turned toward Drifter, pressing her forehead to the white blaze running down his face. She hugged his head, and told him how much she loved him. Her hands found his fuzzy ears and massaged them before running through his forelock. Moving to his side, she stroked his strong neck, combing tangles out of his mane with her fingers. Losing herself to the wrenching pain again, she wrapped him in a tight hug and sobbed into his fur. He wrapped his head around and hugged her back for the last time.
Dr. Hanson came back. “Are you ready?” she asked.
“I think so,” Janice said in a voice squeaky with her crying. She turned back to Drifter one last time. “I love you, big guy. I love you so much.” Then she handed the lead to Sally who walked him outside and around the side of the barn. Dr. Hanson followed.
After what seemed like forever, the women came back. Dr. Hanson told Janice that she could come to the office tomorrow to get the information. She didn’t have to pay anything yet, they would send a bill. Sally asked if she was ok to drive home, or if she needed a ride. But Janice just wanted to be alone.
She cried the entire ride home. Her life had changed forever, leaving a gaping hole in her heart that ached like nothing she’d felt before.