Meet the Elgin veterinarians who specialize in horses
The website for one Fox Valley hospital boasts of having some facilities you won't find at, say, Advocate Sherman or Provena Saint Joseph: An "indoor trotting aisle." "Four intensive-care stalls." And even one of those much-coveted "central fly spray systems."
But then, Dr. John Vacek notes, his patients have more legs than the sick folks who go to the area's human hospitals.
Vacek and Dr. Margaret MacHarg co-own the Kendall Road Equine Hospital just east of Route 47 in Plato Township. With 22 stalls, three examination rooms and an operating suite, the staff of three veterinarians, two interns, four office workers and various volunteers don't do house calls. (Or should we call them horse calls, or stall calls?)
But Vacek said horse owners who have trailers bring in horses from as far away as Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, plus the more local "horsey" regions such as Wayne, Barrington Hills and the surrounding western Kane County area.
The number of cows and hogs visible on Kane County farms has plummeted, and farms have virtually disappeared from DuPage and Cook counties. But the number of horses has gone up. Vacek said Kendall Road's patients range from horses that suburbanites board in the country for weekend riding to trained jumpers who compete in horse shows and even thoroughbreds from the Chicago race tracks, who sometimes come here to undergo surgery.
Co-owner MacHarg said the Kendall Road hospital was built 11 years ago. Before that, she and other partners ran the Illinois Equine Hospital, along Eola Road near Aurora and Naperville. But as suburban strip malls and housing developments choked out the farms in that area, she and Vacek, who had moved to Illinois from his home state of Colorado to do his veterinary internship with MacHarg, extended their vision to the more rural far-west exurbs and closed the Eola Road facility.
"Most of the people who work here have been with us since five or 10 years before we moved," Vacek said, watching a horse with a sore leg jog up and down the parking lot.
He said lameness is one of the two most common reasons that owners bring a horse to the hospital. The other is "colic," a pain in the belly. But one patient who has had to stay overnight -- waking this morning in surprisingly good spirits -- had just had his testicles removed the day before, to improve his personality and make him cooperate better with other stallions.
Another patient, being treated by intern Allison Parnell and future vet/present-day volunteer Christyne Hyler, has come in to get sharp edges on his teeth sanded down with what looks more like a jackhammer than a human dentist drill.
You think you passed a painfully big kidney stone a few years ago? Vacek said one thing that can cause that belly pain in a horse is the formation of huge calcium carbonate stones in their large intestines.
"They can swallow pieces of metal or even just a pebble. It can get stuck in the colon and keeps building up layer after layer of calcium carbonate, the way a shellfish forms a pearl, until it blocks the intestine and had to be removed surgically," he said.
In fact, the conversation piece in MacHarg and Vacek's office is their collection of giant colon stones they have cut out of horses. The biggest of all is the size of a bowling ball -- 9 inches across, 7 inches high and more than 20 pounds in weight.
A horse who needs to have such a stone removed, or a torn tendon stitched together, or two testicles cut off, undergoes surgery in an operating room lined and floored with concrete. It comes with an overhead crane track that can lift two tons.
The patient is pressed between one wall and a movable partition, then put to sleep with an injection. The horse's slumping body is hooked up to the overhead crane, slid over to the operating table, then placed in one of several postures while air and further anesthetics are fed into its esophagus through a plastic tube.
On a more somber note, the veterinarians sometimes get called to slide an animal into its final sleep.
"My wife is a small-animal vet, so she deals with euthanasia all the time," Vacek said. "That part never gets easy. But sometimes they're just too sick to help, or they're suffering inhumanely."
He said a service picks up horses' corpses, cremates them and will return the ashes if the owner desires. He said there is even one pet cemetery in Illinois where someone can bury a horse, but that is rare.
On this day, Kendall Road's clients include Elmer Morefield of Elburn, who not only has brought three horses of his own for their periodic exams but makes his living -- with two full-time employees -- taking care of horses' feet. Pursuing the centuries-old profession known as "farrier," Morehead trims excess tissue off unshoed horses' hoofs and makes custom-sized metal shoes to reduce the wear on the feet of other horses.
Some things about that trade haven't changed much since the Middle Ages. Morefield still hammers the horse shoes into shape on a hot forge. But rather than being heated red hot by a charcoal fire made intense by pumping a bellows, Morefield's 21st-century forge rides to the hospital or owners' farms on the back of a pickup truck, burns propane gas and is backed up by an electric drill press and grinder.
To learn more about Kendall Road Equine Hospital, visit kendallroadequine.com/.