Oh, how my heart hurts! Last month, our sweet Baby Bell fell while playing in the round pen. It didn’t seem like a tragic fall as she immediately jumped up and went back to being her silly self. But, oh, how life can change in such a small instant! 

A few days after her fall, Jonathan noticed Baby Bell was having trouble with her stifle joint. At first glance, it seemed she must have pulled a muscle or injured a tendon—nothing to cause extreme concern. We agreed to make an appointment with Dr. Fisch at AVS Equine Hosptial in Tallahassee just to be on the safe side. 

I took a Tuesday off of work and headed to the barn to pick up my precious Bell. As always, she was excited to see me and waltzed right up to the trailer. That’s when the reality of her injury began to set in. She could not seem to find her balance to step up into the trailer. She finally made a small leap, scrapping the fronts of her rear legs. She settled for a moment as I closed her in for the hour and a half ride. 

At the vet’s office, Bell was her usual inquisitive self. She said hello to the horses in pastures around the facility as we walked into the examination barn. She looked around for a moment at the stocks and stalls, but stood quietly while we waited for Dr. Fisch. 

Dr. Fisch greeted Bell with a kind word and asked me a few general questions as I handed her to his assistant. He proceeded to conduct a normal lameness exam asking the assistant to trot off with Bell so he could watch her move. But, he quickly changed his tactic and took Bell himself. He spun her is small circles this way and the other. Finally, he took off his medical coat and put it over her eyes. He handed her back to his assistant and asked her to trot Bell off again. Bell couldn’t go forward without her sight.

Dr. Fisch had made up his mind at that point—he needed to speak with the insurance company. He explained to me her injury was not in fact an injury at all, but one of two explanations, both of which had to do with her nervous system. The first, and most likely explanation was EMP. The second, nerve damage in her spine. Both took me by surprise. 

After speaking with the insurance company, Dr. Fisch came back in to take a blood sample and test for EMP. Ugh. I’d been through EMP before and it is a nasty disease. Suddenly, all of Bell’s symptoms made sense for me. She was off balance. She kept falling. She wanted to stand quietly while most yearlings would be besides themselves in a new place.

Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, shortened EMP, is a neurological disease caused by the protozoal parasite called Sarcocystis neurona. This parasite is spread through the feces of South Georgia’s most notorious scavenger, the opossum. Just one opossum can infect an entire barn, hay lot or pasture for months on end. 

While some horses are able to develop an immunity to the disease, Baby Bell’s young age and introduction to training (stress) made her a prime candidate for the protozoal parasite to pass through her intestinal tract into her blood stream and cross the blood/brain barrier. To be sure, Dr. Fisch took a small blood sample to be analyzed. 

Dr. Fisch explained that the blood sample is not 100% accurate and only tells a probability of exposure. But, he didn’t feel a more accurate spinal tap would be advantageous given that the baby was already off balance. He sent off the blood work, and I prepared to wait for the results. 

Dr. Fisch called me the following Tuesday with less than good news. In his career, he has seen many cases of EMP. The worst of which had blood results of 640 or approximately 95% probability of EMP. Bell’s results were 2,500! He’d never seen one so high. Lucky me. The following day, I drove back to Tallahassee to pick up her medications and instructions. 

“We are going to hit her hard and for much longer than a normal case,” Dr. Fisch explained to me. My heart sank. But, he assured me he has seen horses with much worse symptoms come around after treatment. I took the injections, the oral medication, the feed thrus and all of his instructions as my brain sort of spun around at the idea of just how sick my sweet Bell is. 

I paid the $1,400 for her first 6 weeks of treatment. Then, did a little simple math in my head to calculate a total bill of more than $5,000 once we near the end of treatment. Thank goodness for insurance!

It has been exactly a week since she started her treatments, and Bell is still a bit on the wonky side of things. I’ve brushed her and loved her. She doesn’t seem to know she’s sick. She knickers at me and asks me to play with her. But, I know she is not well and my heart hurts. We had plans for her to attend the Big A in Conyers this summer followed by the possibility of going to the NSBA World for the lounge line classes. I was looking at her yesterday and thought to myself how much I’d like to put her in the yearling halter classes. But, that wouldn’t be fair to her right now. Right now, I have to do what’s best for my sweet baby, and that’s to get her well. 

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