GLENWOOD SPRINGS - Back in the day, if your horse went lame, the options were to put it out to pasture or end its life. Now, there's MREquine, a mobile, high field magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) service that takes the guesswork out of treating bone and soft tissue injuries.
MREquine, based in Boise, Idaho, has been visiting Glenwood Veterinary Clinic (GVC) once a month since late last summer.
GVC's Dr. Eric Everett says MRI scans open diagnostic doors.
"A [bone scan], ultra-sound, and X-ray tells you where [the injury is] but not what," he explained. "But, the X-ray doesn't see soft tissue and an ultra-sound doesn't see bone." The MRI sees it all - soft tissue, ligament, bone and cartilage. And it's cheaper in the long run because with an MRI, horse owners can skip the intermediate diagnostic steps.
Dr. Everett compares MREquine to sports medicine.
"If I injured my shoulder today, I'd go to [the hospital] and they'd do an MRI," said Dr. Everett. "They're not going to mess around."
MREquine got its start in 2009 and now has three mobile veterinary MRI coaches, serving the nation's northwest, southwest and southeast regions.
The southwest coach comes to Glenwood Springs and looks like a white semi-truck and trailer as it rolls down the road. Inside are a state-of-the-art imaging suite and computer room where a technician monitors the images as they're scanned.
"We're like the circus," said Sierra Hightower, an MREquine technician from California, "only we're not as smelly or creepy."
She said the large-bore magnet in the imaging suite is similar to those used in human hospitals. It is so powerful it can suck a metal object like a pocket knife or wristwatch right into its core. A visitor was cautioned to remove all ferrous objects and not take a camera near the magnet. It also neutralizes credit cards, warned Hightower.
The magnet room is lined with lead and copper because the magnet is always on. The lining, she said, "protects people on the outside who might have pacemakers or other things that would be affected by a magnet."
But the magnet doesn't hurt the animals or the staff inside the room. It takes pictures or image slices of the injured area, top to bottom, front to back and side to side, which are then sent to a computer in the adjacent room.
Scans provide detailed images
So, how do you fit a horse into an MRI scanner? Very carefully and with lots of preparation.
First, the horse's shoes are removed. Then the hooves are cleaned and the animal is prepped for anesthesia in GVC's surgery barn. (The horses are completely sedated for the procedure.)
X-rays are taken to make sure no metal fragments from the shoes remain in the hooves that can cause image distortions or damage the machine.
When the X-rays are approved, the horse is led to a padded room and sedated. Once unconscious, it is hoisted onto a bed and wheeled outside, constantly surrounded by doctors and staff who monitor vitals and breathing.
The bed is lifted into the imaging suite in the back of the trailer. Once inside, the horse's injured leg is positioned inside the magnet, which resembles a large doughnut, and the scanning begins.
It's amazing how beautiful equine anatomy can be when seen through the eye of a large-bore magnet. The black and white and grey-toned images rival sketches by the old masters. That's because the larger the magnet, the more detailed the images, said Dr. Everett.
"It's the strength of the magnet that gives you the details," he explained.
After the scan, the horse is wheeled back into the surgery barn, hoisted off the bed, and returned to the padded room for recovery.
GVC is the only hospital on the Western Slope offering MREquine services. The process takes several hours to complete and costs around $2,300.
But it's more convenient than hauling a horse to Denver or to Colorado State University at Fort Collins, which has its own large-bore, high-resolution magnet.
"We're seeing two to three horses a month," Everett said. He hopes that as word gets out about the mobile MRI, more people will use it.