Kona’s big appointment with the ophthalmologist at Oklahoma Sate was last Thursday afternoon. It had been scribbled in my planner for weeks, and every time I saw it I would quickly look away. I couldn’t bear the thought of what that appointment could hold in store for Kona’s future. I didn’t have a clue what to expect would happen during our time at the clinic. Normally, when I take my horses to vet appointments, they’re very routine and predictable. But this was different.
Would they biopsy the tumor? How does one biopsy an eye tumor? How much does it cost to biopsy an eye tumor? How much does it cost to even have an exam from a specialist? What if she recommended surgery? Would I be able to afford surgery?!
My anticipation surrounding the whole situation consumed me. I couldn’t sleep the night before, and I felt sick all day Thursday. My worst fear was that the ophthalmologist would elect to remove his eye.
The appointment was at 2pm, so at 1:15pm I went outside and hooked up the trailer. I’m very blessed to only live about three miles away from OSU Vet Med, so taking horses to the vet is super quick and easy. My husband came home early from work to watch the kiddos and graciously helped me load up. He knew I was struggling. Kona loaded like a good boy and we got there a few minutes before 2pm.
The process at OSU is a bit different because it’s a teaching hospital. First, a student is assigned to your case and begins by asking you a long list of questions about your horse and his living situation and health concerns. Most questions are completely unrelated to the issue at hand, but it gives them an opportunity to practice working with clients. Then, you lead the horse inside the building and a gaggle of college kids swarm your horse to take their vitals. Again, it’s all just for the sake of practice. I’ve been at the teaching hospital so many times it has never bothered me, but this particular day it felt completely unnerving to have eleven people stare at you while I lead my horse to the scales, walked him through the building, and then at him up tin the stocks. My face burned red and I felt like a spectacle. I did not want to be there.
I tried to relax as all eleven students surrounded Kona and took his vitals and generally discussed his appearance and health. They deemed him healthy and moved on to his eye. Something about that made my hackles rise–watching them poke and prod my fur kid like he was some experiment. I tried to remember it was all for learning purposes and Kona was helping them. The ophthalmologist came and examined him shortly after that. She said she agreed with my regular vet that Kona has an iris melanoma, but it’s probably a fast-growing tumor rather than slow-growing. Essentially, he has a solid mass that is taking up about a third of his eye and it’s beginning to press on his cornea. He does not appear to be in any pain and he can still see well. But. She believed the tumor will continue to grow and eventually take over his eye and cause secondary issues such as glaucoma and cataracts. The good news is, the tumor is most likely benign and will not spread to the rest of his body. She was very kind and quiet and knowledgeable. I appreciated that she spoke directly to me, instead of talking to everyone in a louder, teaching way. She did not biopsy the mass, and felt confident about her diagnoses. She had done research and she could only find two other similar cases, making this a very rare occurrence. Both of those horses underwent surgery to have the tumors removed from their eyes, but they were smaller tumors and we only know that the tumors did not come back after 6 months.
I stood there with one hand on my horse as she told me my options. Option one was to try surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Chances are not favorable for entire removal and the risk of regrowth is high. Option two was to try a laser therapy normally used on dogs to reduce the size of the tumor. She had never tried this on a horse, and the tumor would continue to grow. Option three was enucleation. Or, remove his eye completely. My lips quivered and tears started to well up in my eyes. I tried to regain my breathing, because that was the last place I wanted to break down.
I asked the vet what she would do if she were in my place, and she said that she would try for the tumor removal but give the surgeon permission to remove the eye if she thought it best. She was very generous about surgery pricing and said she would write off most of the expense of surgery in lieu of teaching purposes since this was such a rare case. I appreciated that. Everyone was very kind. The vet tech assisting told me about her horse who only had sight in one eye. The encouragement was meaningful. Most of the students had scampered off to poke some other poor animal by that point, and I was grateful for the quiet.
The vet said she would call me on Monday to see if I had made a decision, and they would hold a spot for a potential surgery the week after Thanksgiving. She did recommend doing the surgery soon since it’s fast growing. Recovery from the tumor removal or enucleation are about the same; he would need to stay in a stall for 4-6 weeks so I could administer meds through a drain line that would go straight into his eye, and to make sure he didn’t bump his face on anything. She also went over the risks involved in putting a horse under general anesthesia, which I was already painfully aware of.
All I heard during that conversation was that my horse would likely be losing his eye.
I’m really trying not to be petty. I am so so grateful my horse isn’t dying or tragically lame or broken in some way. I also recognize that he’s a horse, and this could just as easily be a human being. But, I’m just really really sad that my sweet boy has to undergo something like this. If he doesn’t lose his eye during the initial surgery, it sounds as though risk of recurrence is very high and I would eventually remove the eye anyway. Sweet Kona has the softest, kindest eyes I know.
I’ve only mentioned Kona’s plight to a handful of people and I’ve been surprised by some of the callused remarks I’ve received. Can’t a girl just be sad about her horse losing his eyeball?! I don’t know about you, but I like my horses to have TWO eye balls!
I finally allowed myself to bawl the whole way home. I haven’t shed a tear since, and I’m trying to be as strong as possible and as grateful as possible. I’m grateful that my horse can still function with one eye! He’ll still be the same old Kona running up to me in the pasture. And, it might take some adjusting, but we’ll continue to ride and grow as a team. I’m grateful that God has blessed me with the means to take my horse to such great doctors and even perform a surgery. I’m grateful that the OSU team is being so generous. I’m grateful that it’s just an eye, and he’s just a horse. I’m sad, but I’m grateful.