Written by: Liz Brown

The emotional rollercoaster of finding and almost losing your equine soulmate.

Thumbnail for Heart and Soul: Surviving Pericarditis

ESI Photography

From the first time Bonnie Edmonds of Alberta saw Hologram, she knew the gelding was special. She was in California for the HITS Thermal Desert Circuit in 2014 when he caught her eye. “I kept riding by him and he’d stick his head out of his stall. He’s just a massive horse with a huge presence,” she said of the 17hh Warmblood. “He grabbed my attention.”

When Bonnie found out Hologram was for sale, she was thrilled, immediately taking him out on trial and buying him shortly thereafter. Within two weeks, they were successfully showing on the jumper circuit. “He was my dream horse, to get me to the next level,” she said.

When they returned to Calgary for the Spruce Meadows summer series, Bonnie expected their success to continue, but the 12-year-old seemed ‘off.’ “He had a couple of bouts where we thought he was dehydrated,” she said. “He seemed a bit colicky, but we gave him some Banamine and he came back like an absolute pro.”

However, when another week went by with off and on colic symptoms and no improvement, Bonnie took Hologram to Moore Veterinary Centre looking for answers. “He wasn’t following a usual colic situation,” said Dr. Ashley Whitehead, the veterinarian who treated Hologram at the clinic. “His heart rate was really high, but his gut wasn’t painful like you’d expect with severe colic.”

Puzzled, Dr. Whitehead ordered an ultrasound of Hologram’s gut to try to pinpoint the cause of his ailment. But she was also curious about something else that didn’t seem quite right – she was having trouble hearing his heart with the stethoscope. “The sound was really faint. I could still hear it, but I had to tell everyone in the room to stop talking to listen to it. To me, that was a big warning sign that something might not be right in the chest,” she said. “So, as I did the ultrasound for colic, I did one for his chest as well.”

What Dr. Whitehead discovered was shocking – Hologram’s chest was filled with fluid, squeezing his heart to the point it could barely pump blood. The condition is called pericarditis, an inflammation of the pericardium (the sac that surrounds the heart). She compared his heart to a squeaky toy being compressed, without being able to expand again. “The fluid was causing his heart to be squished inside itself,” she explained.

For Dr. Whitehead, the situation was dire. She knew she needed to reduce the fluid before Hologram’s heart stopped beating altogether. The team moved quickly to prepare a five-inch needle to stab into his chest to drain the fluid, but it wasn’t fast enough. He collapsed as they were trying to put the needle in. “He was basically fainting because his heart wasn’t able to pump enough blood through his body,” said Dr. Whitehead.

Luckily, they were able to get him back to his feet and begin the procedure. “It was quite scary, putting that five-inch needle into the chest of a horse whose heart was moving,” she noted.

Over the next 24 hours, Dr. Whitehead drained 17 litres of fluid out of Hologram’s chest and started treating him with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. She ran tests to try to figure out the cause of the fluid – pericarditis can be a symptom of a viral infection or cancer – but all of the usual suspects Dr. Whitehead tested for came back negative.

After a harrowing two days and two weeks of recovery at the clinic, Hologram was ready to go home. To this day, Dr. Whitehead doesn’t know what caused his chest to fill with fluid. “We call it idiopathic pericarditis – idiopathic just means we don’t know the cause,” she said.

Looking through veterinary literature, Dr. Whitehead says that there aren’t many recorded cases of idiopathic pericarditis. In fact, there are only 19 reported and most of those cases were reported before the early 2000s, when diagnostic techniques weren’t as well-developed.

Bonnie’s voice still cracks when she talks about Hologram’s close brush with death. “I remember saying ‘There’s no way this horse can be dying. I refuse to believe it. He couldn’t be this big healthy performing horse and then three days later be collapsing.’”

Today, Bonnie and Hologram have switched disciplines and are learning dressage together. “We’re learning a whole new world and he’s just so willing and open to change,” she said. “He really is my partner. Sometimes you meet a horse and you know he’s your forever horse. That’s what he is for me.”