Being a large animal ambulatory vet, I take most things with me in my truck from farm to farm. This includes the X-ray machine. The eighty-year-old, rickety, probably owned by Marie Curie X-ray machine. I hate that thing.
Radiographic imaging technology has advanced in leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years. The veterinary community has grown from analog machines (loading film and developing film in a dark room) to digital machines (hooking up to a computer and within minutes getting a lovely picture that you can actually manipulate contrast, zoom, backlighting, or whatever else your heart desires).
Any vet that does any work with horses needs at least some basic experience with a mobile radiograph machine. Even if you don’t work on high-end performance horses (which is my case), you’ll still take frequent pictures of feet to check for rotation of the pedal bone in cases of laminitis, and images of joints in cases of arthritis and suspected sepsis.
Additionally, any vet that does any work with any animal knows the basics of radiological safety. Just like when you visit the dentist, we have to line our squishy bodies with lead before snapping a picture. This usually includes what I call the three-piece suit: gloves, body armor, and thyroid cover. Oh, and clients? You get to wear this, too, if you are holding the horse or otherwise insist on being in the general area. There’s a radiology concept called scatter, which means that although the machine should be collimated so that the beam of X-rays is just that — a beam — some more adventurous, naughty X-rays won’t travel in this beam, but instead bounce around outside the beam to say, your thyroid, or left pinky finger, or uterus. This is why everyone wears lead suits.
The challenge of taking radiographs of horses is thus: Lining up machine with body part with film is hard enough, but when your subject matter is curious or scared of said machine or film and decides to dance around expensive equipment, things can get exciting. I don’t normally like to sedate horses when taking a radiograph because usually I need them standing a certain way, such as bearing full weight on a leg or at a certain angle, and doped horses don’t usually cooperate in such ways. They tend to be clumsier around wires and large cassettes and slow moving, lead-laden veterinarians.
As a side note, some equine body parts require bizarre radiographic angles to capture certain bones and joints, angles with horrendous names such as dorsomedial to palmarolateral oblique view. I mean, really? Is that even English?
The uber-challenge in my case is that we still have an analog machine. We snap pictures and then have to take them to a local small animal clinic to develop them. This means I don’t know if the image has even turned out until that afternoon or sometime the next day, whenever I can squeeze in a drive back to the clinic.
Additionally, this machine is the devil. It weighs about fifty pounds, has persnickety electrical requirements, and travels in a case that requires it to break down into about five different pieces. It wobbles, it has holes, it creaks, and it gives off a weird high-pitched, barely audible “beep” when I’m actually taking a radiograph. There are phases where I won’t need to take a radiograph for a month and then it seems like I’m snapping pictures every day for a week.
Despite my trusty lead three-piece-suit, I’m still skeptical of the safety of this antique. Sometimes at night in a dark corner of a barn, I look down at my hands and heave a sigh of relief. I’m not glowing — yet.
Dr. Anna O’Brien