The People & The Pony That Pioneered Veterinary Orthotics

The following story was sent to us by veterinarian Julie Buzby who worked with our very own Terry over 20 years ago. The story tells of how Julie, Terry, and a pony named Maddie helped pioneer the notion of veterinary orthotics at the University of California Davis.

The Story Of Maddie

The story of Maddie had been buried in my heart for so long that I might have lost it, had it not been for a commercial I saw recently. The commercial was for a visionary company which fabricates custom prosthetics for animals, often sparing them from euthanasia by returning their mobility.

Maddie was a horse, more specifically, a pony. She was the first of her breed to ever be born on US soil. Her mother had been imported by a California family, and she was deeply loved as a family pet and valuable investment.

I was between my sophomore and junior year of veterinary school at the time, which made me, medically speaking, pretty much worthless. I had finished all my dissecting labs and microscope courses, but I had no hands-on knowledge and had never worked on actual patients.

That summer I was accepted to UC Davis as a summer extern. I showed up my first day with a stethoscope, a notebook which I had divided into 26 alphabetical sections, and an eager attitude. I was responsible for checking and recording my patients’ vital signs twice a day, administering prescribed medications, and reporting any concerns to the doctors, who were actively overseeing all affairs.

Meeting Maddie

Maddie was admitted to the teaching hospital because she had been born unable to use her legs. Her two front legs simply wouldn’t straighten up and support her weight. I don’t remember an actual diagnosis being made, but something was wrong with her tendons and ligaments and she couldn’t stand. A normal foal would be up and nursing within an hour of birth, so this was a big problem for Maddie.

I don’t recall what the official plan was for Maddie, but she had been there a few days and wasn’t progressing. Then the idea struck me. What Maddie needed was leg braces. If her column of bone could be supported, maybe she could stand and walk on her own. And if she could do that, maybe her legs would grow straight and strong and she would survive this. I hustled over to a desk in the barn and began rummaging through the drawers for a phone book. I didn’t even knew what the people who made custom crutches and braces for humans were called, but eventually I found a local number in the yellow pages and called it.

I can only imagine what I might of said, but I’m sure I said it with pleading desperation. The receptionist put me through to the co-owner of the company, a man named Terry. I knew it was a long shot but Terry miraculously agreed to come out the next day and take a look.

The Arrival of Terry

The next day Terry arrived with his bag of tricks. He was very at ease greeting Maddie and confidently began his examination. He moved her legs through ranges of motion, and took tools out of his bag and made measurements and eventually molds. Students filtered in and out of Maddie’s barn while Terry quietly did his work. Maddie would have her braces within a few days.

During those interim days the head of the department, Dr. Madigan, approached me and asked what financial arrangement I’d made with this company. In my business-naive mind, I had simply assumed any company would be thrilled to donate their time and services to help Maddie. A slow panic overcame me, as I stammered to explain my logic. I assured Dr. Madigan that I would call Terry and iron this out. In my mind, I role played how that conversation was going to go. I couldn’t just come right out and say, “Hey, I assumed you were doing this for free. I hope you feel the same!”

I distinctly remember my overwhelming sense of relief when Terry assured me that he was doing his work gratis. And even though I never knew Dr. Madigan to be anything but self-assured and in control, I think he even looked visibly relieved when I gave him the good news.

Maddie’s New Legs

Terry, our prosthetic angel, returned for the fitting several days later. After he strapped on the braces, which held her front legs in extension, I carried Maddie out to the grassy area in front of the barn. A crowd had gathered for the unveiling of Maddie’s “new legs”. I stood Maddie up and stabilized her for a minute, afraid to let go. After finding her balance, Maddie took her first tottering steps. For the first time in her young life, she was, under her own power, functioning as a horse should.

A Grim Prognosis

At some point Dr. Madigan moved in for a closer look and kneeling down, gathered her to his chest. Instinctively, he gave her a cursory exam. He listened to her heart and found a heart murmur—a significant heart murmur.

I was the student on the case, and had listened to her heart many times, but I never detected the murmur. I was busy looking at the face of my watch, counting how many beats occurred in 15 seconds, and multiplying by four. That was my level of expertise. To this day, I feel bad about not picking up Maddie’s heart murmur. But the blame fell on the resident who was in charge of Maddie.

I was still celebrating the victory of her mobility. I never expected the news that would follow. The owners were contacted and the decision to euthanize was made. I remember the resident telling me that I didn’t have to be the one to do it, but I was the frontier boy in Old Yeller. I knew I had to be the one.

The Time That Followed

I went back to Kansas State University, and completed my final two years of veterinary school. At the end of my senior year, I won several awards, none of them because I was the brightest or most talented student. I was respected for being thorough. To this day, a new client will often comment, “That is the most thorough examination my dog has ever had.” I am proud of the compliment—it’s a part of how I define myself as a veterinarian. The truth is, I couldn’t practice any other way. I never realized it, but a little pony, who lived but a few days, taught me that lesson and gave me that gift.

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