Costly Surgery Saves Pony That Enthralls Disabled Kids

But $20,000 Veterinary Bill Drains Lisbon Riding Center

May 29, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

Jerry Mallon of Lisbon is one lucky pony.

The painful question his owners faced last month was whether to agree to surgery, which could cost several thousand dollars, or put him to sleep and explain the bottom-line decision to the disabled children who have befriended thegray Connemara.

John and Helen Tuel, owners of the Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center in Lisbon, let their hearts guide them, and they have $20,000 in veterinarian bills to show for it -- more than triple the expense they'd expected.

Last week, the pony was recovering from hisexpensive surgery, walking around the one-acre corral where he is recuperating and starting to resist when people try to squirt medicine down his throat.

But Jerry's complicated medical problems over thepast six weeks have meant veterinary bills that threaten to drain the riding center of its scholarship fund, which provided $20,000 in riding lessons and physical therapy to about 125 disabled children lastyear.

"We're going to have to cut back on everything," Helen Tuelsaid. "Fewer people are going to be able to receive scholarship assistance," and some money may have to come out of the center's fund fora permanent home to replace facilities it now rents.

Her husband said they've raised a little over $2,000 so far from responses to mailings to regular donors and a spot on a Washington TV news show.

But the center, which operates solely on donations and fees and receives no government grants, still needs $18,000.

"When I got this (notice) I sent them $25," said regular donor Marilyn Thiede of West Friendship. "I'm retired and sitting in a wheelchair, and I can't give them as much as I'd like to."

The beloved pony, whose last name comes from a respected line of registered Connemaras, helps teach hundreds of children to ride every year, said Helen Tuel.

The children, who describe the gray-white pony as having soft eyes and a sweet expression, learn to trot and canter in an indoor or outdoor arena and sometimes learn to jump. A few take Jerry to horse shows.

"What's unique about him is that he can be understanding to a disabled rider," she said. "It's wonderful for self-confidence and just for physical well-being."

For children dependent on crutches, braces, walkers orwheelchairs, "he's a whole different world for them. A lot of these children love the speed, they love just moving," said Helen Tuel.

And those children, like Elizabeth Hepple, 11, of Hickory Ridge Village, were devastated to learn of Jerry's plight.

"It's a real heart-breaker; Jerry was one of their favorite horses," said Elizabeth's father, David Hepple. "People can make value judgment as to whether they should have done it, but people at the center work with their hearts."

Elizabeth, who suffered from poor muscle tone, has ridden Jerry regularly. "It's made dramatic improvements in her physical abilities and her balance," said her father.

After finding Jerry lying in agony with a severe case of colic April 17 at the riding center, the Tuels called their local veterinarian, who recommended taking the animal to an equine medical center in Leesburg, Va.

"At that time the price was quoted at perhaps $3,000 to $5,000," said Helen Tuel -- $6,000 tops.

Jerry's massive veterinary bill is uncommon but not unheard of with recent advances in equine medicine, said Dr. NathanielWhite, one of a team of veterinarians who helped treat the pony.

"When we looked at him we were very concerned because he didn't have a good chance of making it," said White, whose facility is part of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. "I don'tthink Jerry would have survived 10 years ago. We wouldn't have been able to do everything we did."

To further darken his prognosis, Jerry developed a bleeding disorder following three hours of surgery toremove about 12 feet of his intestines.

"That was some sight, seeing him on his back in the operating room," said Bettina Catalano, Jerry's original owner. Catalano sold him and bought him back twice forclose to $3,000 before donating him to the riding center two years ago. She is now nursing him back to health on her Clarksville property.

The bleeding condition lasted about a week, followed by an anemic condition requiring several blood transfusions. Jerry's intestines did not heal properly, and doctors had to operate again.

The operations and anemia led to an abdominal infection, a magnesium deficiency, an irregular heart rhythm and a hoof problem.

Last Friday, eight days after his release from the hospital, Jerry was 200 pounds lighter than his original weight of 948 pounds, but showing signs of recovering.

"You can tell he's getting better because he's spittin' itout now," Catalano said while heading for Jerry's temporary stall with doses of "bute" for his laminitis, and a magnesium supplement. After squirting the magnesium into his mouth, Catalano had to hold Jerry's slobbering mouth shut until he swallowed the clear liquid.

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