At New Bolton, medical all-stars team up to save four-legged athletes

November 29, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

KENNETT SQUARE, PA. — *TC KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- How do you set an elephant's broken leg?

With a tractor, a crane and a cast roughly the size of a four-foot drainpipe.

And, whatever you do, don't forget the anesthesia.

"You need a ladder for that," Dr. David Nunamaker said, recalling a long-ago operation. "You have to put the anesthesia in the elephant's ear."

At the New Bolton Center of the University of Pennsylvania's Veterinary Medical School, they are accustomed to caring for big animals with big medical problems.

Here, there are doctors, nurses and students who don't blanch at the sight of ailing 8-ton elephants, 500-pound tortoises or 100-pound goats.

But the facility's worldwide reputation is built around the care and healing of horses.

New Bolton is the Mayo Clinic of the equine world.

Spread across 600 acres and 70 buildings is a state-of-the-art medical and rehabilitation center that looks every bit like a hospital for humans. Only all the medical equipment comes horse-sized.

There are surgical suites that resemble garages and contain monorails to carry the animals. Intensive-care units are stocked with hay. And inside the sports medicine clinic is a treadmill that could double for a people-mover at O'Hare Airport.

"You're trying to save horses and make their lives better," said Dr. Nunamaker, chief orthopedic surgeon. "These are athletes."

One athlete saved recently was Root Boy, a 5-year-old horse who broke down in the Maryland Million Classic at Laurel on Oct. 9. Dr. Nunamaker surgically repaired Root Boy's right foreleg, which was broken in three places. The horse was released from the hospital Tuesday.

The secret to New Bolton's success can't be found in the buildings by themselves. The staff is skilled and dedicated, a group of all-stars working for a common goal: healing big animals.

There are internists, cardiologists, surgeons, pathologists, nutritionists, radiologists and reproductive specialists.

And nobody ever asks to see a Blue Cross card before beginning treatment.

These are diligent doctors who don't need courses in patient relations. They're naturals, making rounds in flannel shirts, jeans and work boots, talking to the animals, taking the vitals, providing a human touch.

And in surgery, they are part auto mechanic, part artist, tugging at half-ton animals one moment, making a fine incision the next.

"To me, life is life," said Wendy Vaala, an internist whose specialty is caring for premature foals. "We put as much care into these patients as doctors do with humans. A healthy respect for life begins at all levels."

During foal season from January to March, Dr. Vaala puts in 18-hour days in the neonatal unit, observing the premature foals laid on mattresses. She can pick up a photo album and point to some of the center's success stories, foals who lived and won races.

"You get pretty attached to the animals around here," she said.

Dr. Vaala, 38, is passing her expertise on to the next generation of vets, students such as Kathy Shaughnessy.

Ms. Shaughnessy is a one-time financial manager for AT&T who had a yearning to care for animals. She quit her job and signed up for Penn's veterinary program. Now, saddled with the debt that comes from four years of tuition fees that range up to $21,582 a year for out-of-state students, Ms. Shaughnessy is nearly ready to re-enter the working world.

"I'll be lucky to get a vet job that pays $30,000," she said. "But this is what I want to do with the rest of my life."

Ms. Shaughnessy faces a future of long hours yet rewarding work.

New Bolton has taught her well. A trip through the intensive-care unit provides just a glimpse at the range of medical problems encountered by the staff.

In one stall lies a 3-year-old gelding with severe pneumonia. Next to him is an 8-year-old show jumper with an ulcer in the eye. And nearly out of a sight, in a bed of straw, is a pot-bellied pig with a charred face and stomach.

"He was caught in a barn fire," Dr. Vaala said. "Most of the horses died, and he's one of the survivors. He has burns on 20 percent of his body. These little guys are very smart. They do scream."

Most of the 6,000 patients who annually stream into the New Bolton Center survive. But there are setbacks.

Nancy Diehl, a resident, recently had to care for a bongo, an African antelope born at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

"He was 18 days old when he was sent here," Dr. Diehl said. "He had no glucose. We tried everything. And he finally died with multiple organ failure."

The last 48 hours were difficult for Dr. Diehl. Up all night, she monitored the animal's vital signs. Nine days earlier, she never had even heard of a bongo. Suddenly, she found herself emotionally attached to the animal.

"We just called him Bongo," she said. "When he died, I got very, very upset. Everyone here cares a lot. You just hope a human hospital works like this."

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