Written by Penny Hawes, this article appeared in our Nov/Dec 2014 issue
There is no “normal” for the vets of the Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center.
When Tina McAlinn was growing up, she loved horses. As an adult, she likes being home with her husband and 3-yearold daughter on their small farm. She grew up in a horsey family, where quality time was spent at shows with her mother and sister.
For her job, McAlinn also stuck a bit close to family tradition. Her mom is a biology teacher, and there was always the love of animals, so initially, she thought of being a vet. She started college with a biology major but went the veterinary technician route so she could obtain her license and start working. She theorized that, after a few years, she’d go back to school and finish her veterinary training.
But a few things happened on the way to fulfilling that plan. For one thing, she spoke with vets— lots of vets—and, according to McAlinn, “Every vet I spoke to would say ‘I used to have horses, I used to do that.’” She knew that becoming a veterinarian would require an amazing amount of time and dedication; she also realized that she liked having her own horses and a little bit of balance to her life. The other thing that happened was that her first veterinary technician job out of college was at Virginia Tech’s Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center (known as the EMC). “I liked it so much, I never wanted to change. I’m glad I went this route, because it’s worked out nicely.”
The EMC is a specialty referral clinic located on a 200-acre parcel of land that was originally part of Morven Park. The donation of the land from the Westmoreland Davis Memorial Foundation, a gift from Marion duPont Scott, and several other contributions made possible the creation of the hospital in 1984.
Since opening its doors 30 years ago, the EMC has treated over 55,000 horses, with annual visits now topping 2,500 per year. The hospital is a specialty referral center, which, according to McAlinn, means, “We see all sorts of things. I think the variety of the cases is great. Even after being here for 11 years, when you think you’ve seen everything, something will walk in the door and you say, ‘What?’ It makes it interesting and exciting to be part of. You think ‘Wow, what are we going to do with this?’ And being at this great place, we come up with something, we figure it out. That’s what I really like about being here, there’s always something new, something you haven’t seen before to work with.”
Dr. Elizabeth MacDonald, a resident in internal medicine, agrees. “Always something you’ve never seen before, so you’re always on your toes, always having to think. It’s always different. And horses always manage to do crazy things—they don’t read the textbooks. They’re amazing creatures, but they’re very sensitive, and it’s amazing what upsets them sometimes.”
Working in internal medicine involves “a lot of neonatalogy, respiratory, neurology cases…anything that’s not related to lameness. It’s a wide range of things—everything not related to lameness, lacerations or joints.”
The EMC covers a wide variety of services, everything from critical care (colic, fractures, neonatal, blood donors), orthopedic and soft tissue surgery, cardiology, ophthalmology, performance and reproductive medicine to dental wellness care, and whatever is the cause of a horse being referred to the hospital, there is a specialist there to cover it.
McAlinn notes that all the veterinarians are leaders in their specialty. “One of the things that makes the EMC special is that the areas of expertise are amazing. You can come and get anything done by an expert. We have reproductive, orthopedic, airway, lameness, and regenerative medicine experts. Whatever you’re coming in for, you’re going to get someone who’s at the top of their game.”
One of those experts is Dr. James A Brown, BVSc, MS, Diplomate ACT, Diplomate ACVS, who is a clinical assistant professor of equine surgery. Brown specializes in reproductive and clinical dental work.
A native of Australia, Brown claims that he, “Pretty much learned to ride before I could walk. My dad used to train standard bred and Thoroughbred racehorses on our family farm. I grew up with them, and I guess that’s why I ended up specializing in horses. Through vet school I knew what a horse was going to do, could predict what they were going to do pretty easily.”
Brown finds working at the EMC rewarding for a variety of reasons. The best part of his job is being able to make a difference. “Trying to improve the health and welfare of the horse. To be able to do, particularly what I do, surgery, and to a make a difference to horses’, and therefore, peoples’ lives, that’s pretty rewarding.”
The ability of veterinarians to improve the health and welfare of horses has changed quite a bit over the last decade. When asked what he saw as some of the biggest recent advances in veterinary medicine, Brown replied, “Advances in diagnostic imaging over the last several years. The common use of MRI is pretty good. It allows us to diagnose conditions in the feet that we really never knew about before. And I think that just, in general, information technology, the internet—such widespread dissemination of information pretty quickly nowadays. It’s a powerful tool. It’s constantly evolving and at a pretty fast pace.”
MacDonald agrees and sees owners that are often armed with questions and information gleaned from the Internet. She notes that they often joke about Dr. Google, but also warns that some information found on Internet forums and chat rooms is incorrect, and horse owners should be selective about what they accept as true.
MacDonald finds one of the big advances is that, “Much of the equipment that we’ve been able to adapt to use for our benefit, most started as human-related. We’ve been lucky that they’ve been able to improve the human side of things like ultrasound. The machines are getting better, and we can see much deeper than we used to. We’re constantly learning and being able to help. Things that maybe three or four years ago we weren’t able to help—we’re able to assist them now.”
Brown agrees, noting that one of the pieces of equipment they hope to acquire is a standing CT to enable the vets to get a standing image of a horse’s head. Currently they’re relying on radiographs and “sometimes making a small hole to put an endoscope in so you can identify teeth and put two and two together. With a standing CT, we’d have the luxury of all that information without being invasive. That would be a good step forward for some of the things I do.”
Brown also sees exciting things coming from some of the research being carried out in other areas of veterinary medicine. “One of the hot topics at the moment is regenerative medicine. That’s pretty exciting to me and to the folks who are involved in that. There are a lot of things to work out in that area, but if some of the things they’re planning to do in the future, if they can actually bring them to reality, that’d be pretty big.”
Brown hopes that some of those advances will allow better treatment options for new problems they’re able to diagnose. “Our ability to diagnose problems, particularly in the feet with MRI has dramatically improved. But we still don’t have the equivalent treatments to resolve the problems we’re finding. Dr. Barrett (the Theodora Ayer Randolph professor of equine surgery at the EMC), who is at the forefront of the regenerative medicine research, is excited with this stuff and where they’re trying to get it to go.”
Regenerative medicine is one of several areas of research at the school. According to the EMC website, “Research faculty at the center have played key roles in the development of pharmaceutical treatments for gastric ulcers, as well as advances in laser surgery, joint disease and treatments for lameness, colic, tendon and ligament injury, and antibiotic therapy.”
The combination of research and clinical aspects of the hospital work very much in favor of the patient, and Brown is quite happy to acknowledge the somewhat unique situation. “We’re a hybrid between a university and a private practice. We do typical university roles in teaching and clinical instruction, but we’re very patient focused. We see horses every day, and have a fairly high caseload. Treating horses. That’s what we’re here to do.”
If you’d like further information on the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center, please visit its website at www.VetMed.VT.edu/emc.