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Connor: A Springtime Miracle



By Christina Abt

Spring---the equine season of caked-on mud and flying fur. Yet amid such seasonal muck and wool, there is another horse-related, spring ritual of the most miraculous kind--- that of newborn foals. The wonder of a horse’s birth can turn even the most experienced horse owner into a proud parent, readily armed with photos of their "future world champion". Yet, there is also a new breed of equine parent who is armed with a technology-savvy means of sharing his/her newborn news and it is an approach that virtually encompasses the world.

ELIZABETH, Colo. – Ridgewood Farm is home to Jay Kleiber, his life partner Jeffrey Nelson, his business partner Julie Ouska and a barn full of Morgan Horses. Together, this group is putting a unique stamp on the Morgan World through its breeding program and show ring success, and also through Jay’s flair for social media as a means to connect and promote.

For those unfamiliar with "social media," it is all about person-to-person contact using online Web sites such as Facebook (Fb) and Twitter. In Jay’s case, he maintains a Facebook page, (https://www.facebook.com/people/Jay-Kleiber/100000765857658), where he regularly posts information, comments and photographs on topics ranging from the weather to his Chicago-based business, and everything in between. These posts are seen by more than 700 of Jay’s Facebook "friends," many of whom are fellow horse people from across the United States.

So it was on February 26, 2011, at 4:01AM, that Jay informed the Facebook world of his joyous news--- RWF Iconic, aka Connor, was born.

Connor’s birth announcement launched a virtual Facebook celebration, as more than 20 of Jay’s friends posted their congratulatory wishes. Unfortunately, their newborn revelry was short-lived as Jay soon began posting notes that Connor was not able to stand, hadn’t nursed, was clearly struggling. A barn call by Ridgewood veterinarian, Dr. Steven Cribley, set up a regimen where every hour Julie and Jay would milk Connor’s dam, Lucy (Dragonsmeade Kalahari,) and then syringe feed her newborn foal. It was a daunting task that the two tackled with intense dedication to their chestnut colt.

As the day wore on, Julie and Jay slowly lost faith in their efforts. As Julie recalls, "It seemed for a while that the feedings were making a difference, but by 1:00PM, it wasn’t going well. Connor wasn’t able to manage his body and we couldn’t keep up." Jay’s late afternoon Facebook post was short and pointed. "At Littleton with Connor," Littleton being a nearby Large Animal Clinic where round the clock veterinary care was available. Jay’s subsequent post offered an update that Lucy and Connor were settled in the clinic’s intensive care unit. As Jay recalled the sequence of events, the emotional impact is reflected in his wavering voice.

"It took about 2 hours to check Connor in. They did some blood work, started him on oxygen and put an IV in him for antibiotics. They also placed a feeding tube. Then they put him in a stall in the neonatal ICU, with Lucy in a separate stall next to him where she could see him. At that point, Connor was critical. It was definitely hour by hour." And as each hour passed, more than 80 of Jay’s FB friends rallied in support, sending comments of concern and good wishes for the valiant little colt.

From the moment of his arrival at Littleton, Connor was under the 24/7 care of veterinarians, Dr. Scott Toppin, Dr. Melinda R. Story, and ICU Head Technician Christina Taylor. Their veterinary expertise quickly determined that Connor had most likely been deprived of oxygen during the birth process and was therefore experiencing typical symptoms of a "dummy foal". The good news was that the clinic staff was highly experienced with the syndrome and in administering effective treatments. All involved were cautiously optimistic about Connor’s long term prognosis.

By mid afternoon of Connor’s first full day in ICU, Jay posted an upbeat "pee and poop" Facebook note. The proud "dad" assessed Connor’s bodily functions as positive signs that the young colt was increasing in wellness and strength. Connor’s expanding Facebook fan club responded with more than 100 responses of continued good wishes. They also began writing independently of Jay’s posts, asking questions about Connor’s well being and offering advice based on their own foal experiences. Some of Jay’s friends began posting about Connor on their own Facebook pages, expanding the colt’s fan base far beyond the Morgan Horse world.

The ensuing four days involved seven-day-per-week 24-hour monitoring of Connor with 15 people working 3 shifts around the clock. His ICU care included turning him over every two hours, changing bandages, monitoring medications, keeping him clean and dry, and literally lifting and bracing the frail colt so that he could stand for short periods of time.

Shift changes included update phone calls to Ridgewood. Jay and Julie describe the process in terms of a "roller coaster ride," as clinic reports vacillated between encouraging progress and depressing decline. At first, the supplemental oxygen and nourishment strengthened Connor, however, his physical condition quickly regressed with the onset of debilitating seizures. Littleton’s medical staff initially controlled the convulsions through steroids, but eventually the attacks continued. Each episode weakened the already-challenged colt causing him to become increasingly disoriented. To complicate matters, Connor began running a fever that would spike dangerously high with unexplainable regularity.

Jay continued Connor’s Facebook posts, sharing both the good news and the bad. He also posted pictures showing the colt swaddled in bandages, draped in a web of tubes and needles. Those reading and responding to Connor’s story swelled to 200. As Jay recalls, Connor’s fan club grew with every new post. "More and more people were asking to be my Facebook friend and writing to me," Jay said. "What really surprised me were the comments on my page from people I didn’t even know."

On day five of Connor’s ICU care, the colt suffered an intensely damaging seizure. Ultimately, Dr, Toppin was forced make an update phone call that he had hoped to avoid. "The seizure pretty much set Connor back to square one," Dr. Toppin said. "So I called and talked with Julie. I told her that I didn’t believe Connor was going to get better and that it might be time to let him go."

For her part, Julie recalls her conversation with Dr. Toppin to the point of tear-filled silence. "When Dr. Toppin called, I was taken aback. All along he had been upfront about Connor’s progress, and we were aware that he was not progressing, but….."

Julie hung up the phone from Dr. Toppin and immediately texted Jay at his Chicago office. Her message simply read, "We need to talk." Jay called and the two did their best to review and appraise the veterinarian’s assessment. Ultimately, both agreed that they did not want Connor to suffer. Julie called the clinic and tearfully asked Dr. Toppin to do what was best. After hanging up the phone, she again texted Jay, this time with the painfully simple message, "Talked to Dr. Toppin."

The rest of that day remains a blur of sadness and tears for all connected to Connor. What Jay does remember is the Facebook post he wrote at 4:40PM. "RIP little Connor man. You tried so hard to live and we are so sad." With the click of the "send" key, Jay delivered Connor’s memorial tribute into cyberspace, shut down his computer and walked away. Little did he imagine what was to follow.

The publishing of Jay’s post brought immediate response from Connor’s devoted Facebook fans. As his birth had been a cause for cyberspace celebration, his passing became a reason for Internet mourning. Starting that afternoon and well into the early hours of the next day, people from around the country posted poignant Connor eulogies. They spoke of his courageous will to live and their sadness over his loss. Their connected sympathies became a virtual wake for this newborn colt that, in 6 short days of life, had captured so many hearts. And while the Facebook world was mourning, a miracle was happening within the confines of the Littleton ICU.

After Dr. Toppin’s final conversation with Julie, he consulted with Christina Taylor, the technician in charge of the Littleton ICU that day. He explained their euthanasia task and began discussion of how to best to proceed. What Dr. Toppin didn’t know was that Christina had been carefully monitoring Connor all morning. She was absolutely positive that the colt was showing signs of improvement. "He was fighting so hard," Christina said. "I really felt like he was going to make it. He just needed a chance to keep trying,"

Christina’s plea was convincing enough that Dr. Toppin agreed to delay what he felt was the inevitable. "It’s really hard to make a rational decision in a case like this," Dr. Toppin said. "But we needed something clear for everyone to be comfortable in making the call. So we decided to give him a bit more time and, in a way, it was a relief. None of us wanted to say good-bye to Connor."

Christina and Connor spent the rest of the afternoon in closely measured care. At day’s end, Dr. Toppin made his way to the ICU hoping for good news. As he and Christina made their assessment, they wrapped their arms around the frail young cold to help him stand. Gently drawing back, the two professionals suddenly realized that somehow Connor was standing on his own. And as the seasoned clinicians watched in tearful wonder, this miracle colt took the first tentative steps of his life.

Christina immediately suggested to Dr. Toppin that if he still had any idea of euthanizing Connor, she would personally euthanize the veterinarian herself. The good-natured vet laughingly recalls the moment. "Everyone, including Christina, had worked so hard on Connor. It would have been very hard to let him go after all of that."

Connor’s show of strength meant that an update phone call to Ridgewood was in order. The emotional roller coaster of Conner’s life was on a full force rise as Julie recalls the conversation with a still-lingering sense of disbelief. "Jeffrey and I were having dinner and feeling very sad, when the phone rang. I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was Dr. Toppin. The only thing I could imagine was that he was calling to check on me because I had been weeping so much when we last talked. I answered and I could hear him crying as he explained that Connor had shown improvement and that he couldn’t put him down. He asked if we would please let him have the weekend to watch for more improvement. The only thing I can clearly remember is that I was completely stunned."

Julie managed to push aside her shock long enough to text Jay his third simple message of the day. "Vet clinic called. We need to talk." Jay’s reaction was immediate. "I had no idea what the phone call was about…whether the clinic was calling about the bill or what," Jay said. "All I knew was that I was done. I couldn’t take anymore. And that’s exactly what I told Julie when she answered the phone."

Once Julie was able to explain to Jay the amazing turn of events and once their collective shock subsided, the two immediately agreed to honor Dr. Toppin’s request. They also decided not to post anything about Connor’s stunning turnaround on Facebook. "It was enough of a roller coaster for us, "Julie said. "We didn’t need to take everyone else on the ride with us." While Jay held his own perspective, "I was hopeful for Connor, but at the same time I was somewhat fearful of what people would think. I had posted Connor was dead and now he was not. I didn’t want anyone to think that I was trying to somehow deceive people. At that point, I hated Facebook."

Ultimately, Jay’s Facebook turmoil caused him to take action. He began by calling Iann Fu Longenecker, a Morgan Horse breeder and exhibitor and the woman from whom he purchased Lucy, in foal with Connor. Iann had been following Connor’s story on Facebook and was fully aware of the painful decision to end the young colt’s life. Jay carefully explained the latest chain of events and asked for Iann’s council. Her response was that people would be thrilled to know Connor was still alive and that they would undoubtedly understand once they heard the complete story. Encouraged, Jay took the next step.

"I had this internal struggle going on," Jay said. "Should I tell people and raise their hopes, only to possibly have to tell them about Connor’s death again if he didn’t improve? Or just not say anything until I knew for sure. I was so exhausted at that point that I really didn’t know what to do. So I sat down at my computer, wrote one post, sat and stared at it for about an hour and then finally sent it."

April 5 2:54PM. "Roller coaster. The clinic just called. They went into Connor's stall and got him up one last time before putting him to sleep. He proceeded to walk around the stall on his own for the first time. The vet was crying and asked us to let them work with him through the weekend, at their expense. His temperature was back to normal. I thought he was already gone. Very hard to take in."

The Facebook response to Jay’s post was immediate and confused. People read and re-read trying to understand exactly what had happened. At the same time, they flooded Jay’s Facebook page with over 200 replies. Was it true? Was Connor really still alive? What was going on? How was he doing? To which Jay responded with silence, mostly because he was sound asleep trying to recover from the previous day’s emotional trauma. Finally, just after 9:00PM, on April 6, 2011, Jay posted the continued good news that Connor was whinnying at anyone coming near his stall, that the feeding tube had been removed and he was drinking from a bottle with plans to move him in with Lucy the next day. One hundred people immediately responded with a resounding, "Yeah boy!"

Two weeks later, Lucy and Connor once again loaded onto the Ridgewood Farm trailer, this time to make the trip home. Since their safe arrival, Connor has continued to strengthen, grow and, as Christina so perfectly phrased it, "just be a colt." To the amazement of all who know him, Connor has become a strikingly handsome, upheaded, doe-eyed Morgan with the title of world champion clearly branded on his perfectly conformed body.

From Dr. Toppin’s perspective, he states that Connor has great show ring potential, "considering his flair for the dramatic", while Christina still becomes emotional in describing him as "…adorable and a fighter with a will to live---a miracle". Julie too fights back tears as she reflects on the strong and healthy chestnut colt now bucking and playing in the Ridgewood barn. "You kind of wonder about the greater meaning in this whole experience. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but every once in a while, I stop and wonder why all of this happened. It kind of feels as if Connor has been specially placed in our care and we’re just so fortunate to have him."

As for Jay, he is busy commuting to Chicago, organizing a payment plan for Connor’s $12 thousand dollar medical bill and partnering with Julie and Jeffrey on Ridgewood’s future horse plans. And, of course, he is still posting Connor updates on Fb, to the delight of people across the United States who have come to love the chestnut colt as their own.

"As I ponder the last two weeks, I am at a loss for words to express our gratitude to the many people who supported Connor and Ridgewood through this journey. Whether you believe in God, the power of prayer, the ways of the Universe, the sending of energy - or all of these things - we know they helped save the life of this little colt. Julie, Jeff and I thank you. We are indebted to you and we are blessed." – Jay Kleiber

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