Saving Nureyev (Cont.)

After Nureyev was moved into his own barn, he experienced about six weeks of improvement. He seemed to like the barn, and he could maneuver the sling around his stall. The sling was on an overhead rail to allow forward and backward movement as well as let Nureyev turn completely around under his own power.

Nureyev's leg cast had been changed three times in the first six to seven weeks after surgery, and it was decided to change it one more time. Everything was radiographically in place, and his injury was healing nicely. He was tranquilized in his stall and laid down on a mat. With every cast change, Dr. Howard had worried about it being too tight or something bothering the stallion. This time, the worry became reality.

"I stuck around that evening," said Dr. Howard. "Along about midnight, he broke out in a cold sweat a starting panting like a dog -- doing nosedives in the sling. I was afraid the cast was too tight and medicated him through the night. The next morning, I called Dr. Thorpe, and he came early and we decided maybe the cast was too tight and removed it. At that time, it was healed enough that we thought it might withstand the leg just being supported with bandages."

The cast was removed, and standing bandages were applied. The change relieved a large part of the stallion's discomfort, but only for a few hours. Soon, Nureyev again started sweating, panting, and showing signs of severe pain.

The leg was radiographed and it was discovered that somehow two of the four screws had been broken. One was cracked, but both pieces were still in alignment. The other, which was on the inside of the leg in the worst area of the break, was badly broken and had to have one broken end removed.

'The Start of All Our Problems'
"That was the start of all our problems," said Dr. Howard with a sigh. "Nureyev started experiencing new pain, and after seven weeks or so with the stress he already had, that's when things started happening."

Nureyev did not want to use his leg, and muscle atrophy became a problem in the leg and hip. Since the leg had gone from a fairly stable condition with the cast to an unstable condition without it, the decision was made to reapply the cast. Without the cast, the injured area was allowed more movement, and with the movement came more pain. The cast was put on, but Nureyev quit eating and became lethargic.

Then, in the latter part of June, Nureyev was afflicted with a respiratory infection. The problem was not pneumonia, but was serious. After treatment, the stallion began to feel better.
Then on the Fourth of July, Nureyev "just wasn't right," said Dr. Howard. "He didn't eat. In the evening, he gradually got worse. His temperature was real high. He started panting. He had a bowel movement that was real loose -- even worse than a cow -- and it had a strong odor.

"We were afraid he was going to try to break into colitis. We worry about that with horses that are under stress for a long period of time."

A blood sample was drawn and taken to Dr. Doug Byars and Dr. Jim Becht at Hagyard-Davidson-McGee's diagnostic medicine facility. Nureyev's electrolytes were depleted, and his white count was low. He was, in fact, on the verge of colitis.

"It probably would have been the end of him if he had gotten colitis at that point in time," reflected Dr. Howard.

For 48 hours, Dr. Howard gave Nureyev intravenous fluids, along with antibiotics. When the stallion showed no interest in eating, he also was given nutrients intravenously. After three days, Nureyev began to show sign of recovery.

"We won that battle," said Dr. Howard with satisfaction. "He was pretty pitiful looking for three or four days. That was the worst he'd been to that point."

Nureyev's stool firmed up and the odor gradually went away, but his leg still was not responding as it should. He had gone from a horse that was walking pretty well with a cast to a horse that was three-legged lame and had been very sick a couple of times in seven or eight weeks.

Every Day Was Different
For several weeks after the incident on the Fourth of July, every day was different for Nureyev. Some days he would walk and move around without much problem on his leg; the next day he would be lame. He was easily fatigued and had lost much of his will to fight. He was able to tolerate a cast for about a week, then would begin banging it against the side of the stall.

(The casting process was handled differently after his bout with the intestinal problem. He was sedated and left to stand during the procedure. Nureyev would end up wearing nine or 10 casts in a 14-week period.)

Nureyev had been severely stressed by his fight with intestinal disease.

"He'd slump down in the sling, but he really couldn't rest," said Dr. Howard with empathy. "The sling was real binding. To me, he was just getting worse by the day. He just didn't act like he wanted to do anything. He'd stand around, eat a little bit -- it was all due to him being so tired and stretched out."

Recline or Decline
A crisis had arrived. Dr. Howard knew that Nureyev was failing. The stallion's great strength was fading, and his will to fight was ebbing. Something had to change, or Nureyev would not survive.

"So, one evening, I had to send Kenny (Aubrey) back to the farm and I was sitting there looking at him by myself and said, 'Well, I'm the one supposed to be taking care of him' So I made a decision.

"I had the guys (working at the surgery unit) bring over the big blue mat (which is about eight inches thick and 10 feet long). I figured this might be the end of him, trying to do this, but he was heading down that same path anyway.

"I was in the stall by myself, and he was slumped down in the sling trying to rest. Real easy, I pulled that mat over right next to him and laid it down. With the hoist, and rubbing on him and talking to him, I let him down maybe four or five inches. I went lower and lower. About the fifth time, he was pretty close to being all the way on the mat. I pushed him over and lowered it.

"For the first time in 59 days, he finally got off his feet," marveled Dr. Howard.

Each day after that first attempt, Dr. Howard would very gently lay Nureyev down for a period of rest -- from one to 3 1/2 hours -- then hoist him back up with the sling. Nureyev began to be more confident with the procedure and with other people around, and it became a twice-a-day ritual.

From 59 days after his accident to the present, Nureyev is laid down daily on his blue mat to rest.

"That's probably the biggest part of him gradually getting better," said Dr. Howard. "He just started being a different horse after that first day when he got to lay down. It kind of kept him going. There are not too many horses -- especially stallions -- that would let you lay them down like that and get them back up."


Read Nureyev's Obituary