Bill Sweeney is a member of an increasingly rare breed. A large animal veterinarian, he has spent decades caring for horses.
“There’s a lot less than there used to be,” Sweeney said. “A good small animal veterinarian is busy. A good large animal veterinarian is really busy … Every now and then, I hear people talk about ‘You saved my horse 50 years ago.’”
Sweeney’s career started in the 1960s, when he enrolled in veterinary school on the GI Bill.
“What got me interested in horses was the veterinarian at Iowa State that I really got involved with … anybody that was interested, he worked with,” Sweeney said.
After school, Sweeney opened a clinic in Minnesota. That’s where he met Jackie.
“I had a very sick foal up in Minnesota,” Jackie said.
The two got to know each other, and, in 1996, the two were married. When Jackie Sweeney bought a horse farm in Dane County, Bill Sweeney came along to help.
“He wanted to blacktop the driveway because we washed our driveway out a number of times with the rain,” Jackie Sweeney said. “So he took on projects like that for the farm, and he did all the vaccinations and lameness and everything for the horses.”
Soon, though, the couple encountered a problem Bill Sweeney couldn’t fix.
“You know, he just started with a little shake in his hand,” Jackie Sweeney said.
It was Parkinson’s Disease, a nerve disorder that can make it hard to perform even simple tasks.
“It’s getting a little bit worse, where it affects my talking for any length of time and affects my thinking,” Bill Sweeney said.
To fight the disease’s effects, Bill Sweeney turned to physical therapy. For the past two years, that therapy has come through Paul Jones, a physical therapy student at the University of Wisconsin Madison who grew up just down the road.
“Bill had been working with a physical therapist in Verona who had sent an email to our director of our program and said ‘Hey, he’s running out of visits that insurance will cover. He’s looking for someone who’ll come out here and work with him. Is there anyone interested in your class who wants to do that?’” Jones said.
Jones jumped at the chance, working with Sweeney on seemingly simple movements like getting out of a chair and on complex tasks like walking sideways or playing catch. Along the way, the two built a bond, talking horses and sports.
“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Jones said. “It’s hard to say that it’s all clinical. I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from him as well.”
And together, the two have done something remarkable, helping keep Sweeney on his feet.
“He’s made a big reduction in the number of falls he’s had, which can be huge,” Jones said.
“I see a huge difference,” Jackie Sweeney said. “The physical activity, I think, has made him a lot more mobile.”
“If I wasn’t getting treatment, I’d probably be dead by now,” Bill Sweeney said. “I think that you really need a purpose to get out and get going and to do things.”
Bill Sweeney certainly does things, like caring for horses.
“I go out on calls, and usually have a driver with me who gets me around and shows me, knows where all my equipment is,” Sweeney said. “Every morning, if you don’t have a reason to get up, you aren’t going to get up and get out of bed and do some work. That’s very important.”