Horse's surgeon in limelight

Barbaro: Road To Recovery

May 23, 2006|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. -- Among zookeepers, farmers and the horse set, the University of Pennsylvania's George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals is renowned.

But it took Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro to make the institution - and the veterinary surgeon chiefly overseeing the horse's recovery from a devastating Preakness Stakes leg injury - the center of attention.

"Horses elicit a pretty deep, visceral response for a whole lot of people because of their strength, elegance and power," says Dr. Dean Richardson, the talkative and personable surgeon who - if all continues to go well - might become known as the vet who saved Barbaro.

"They're just beautiful animals and it doesn't make a difference if it's racehorses, show horses or pet horses," he says. "There's a deep bond between horses and humans."

But Richardson, keenly aware of the limelight, has also made it clear that chances of a happy ending for Barbaro are "a coin toss" - far longer than the betting odds that made the horse a prohibitive favorite entering the starting gate late Saturday afternoon at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course.

Before a crowd of more than 100,000 at the track, and millions around the world watching on television, Barbaro stopped racing just seconds out of the gate, his right hind leg flailing as if made of putty.

It was broken in three places, and dislocated, a grouping of injuries that Richardson said he had never seen in all of his years of repairing broken animals. But the surgeon, who also teaches and researches cartilage repair at the hospital, emerged smiling nearly eight hours after Barbaro's operation began, telling of a walking, frisky, hungry horse who felt good enough to nicker at a few mares in nearby stalls.

In cautioning that Barbaro still has just a 50-50 chance at survival, he observes, "Things can be bad on a minute-by-minute basis, but things can only be good after many weeks or months."

Such declarations seem to pour out of the suddenly celebrity surgeon at the center of media frenzy attending Barbaro. He speaks plainly, but with verbal flourishes, about horses, their beauty and surprising fragility; at times he flashes a mischievous grin, sometimes a flushed face.

And just a day after perhaps the most important surgery of his life, Richardson in his nondescript blue scrubs was back at work at Widener - including surgery on another, uncelebrated patient.

In many ways the hospital, and Penn's entire veterinary school, are as renowned as Richardson has become. The large animal hospital is one of the nation's busiest, treating mainly horses but also camels, tigers, alpacas, zebras and cows, among other animals, mostly from the Philadelphia Zoo and others in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Many of the horses it receives and treats off-site with its ambulatory service are from Maryland and Pennsylvania, although some are brought in from New York.

The hospital is ready around the clock to operate on horses and other animals, put them on ventilators, administer intravenous fluids or oxygen, or even rehab them with a large treadmill. It sees 6,000 patients and makes more than 19,000 patient visits annually, according to the school's Web site.

Research in the center also focuses on all aspects of equine treatment as well as infectious disease. When entering most of the buildings on the 650-acre complex, a visitor must wipe his shoes across an anti-bacterial mat - protection for the animals.

Founded in 1884, the veterinary school is globally known.

Imogen Johns, an internist finishing her residency at Widener, said she came from Sydney, Australia, to study at Penn.

She laughed about all the attention the school has had this week.

As for Barbaro, she said, "There have been other famous horses here, but nothing like this."

Indeed, most patients at Widener are not sent get-well wishes.

Gail Luciani, a spokeswoman for the veterinary school, said the hospital had received by yesterday more than 500 e-mail messages and letters, mostly from children, wishing Barbaro well.

Signs such as "Good Luck, Wonderhorse" decorate the fence welcoming visitors. Carrots and flowers fill a table in the lobby.

Among yesterday's visitors was Barbaro's trainer, Michael Matz, readily expressing gratitude for the efforts to save the horse.

"He's one of the best surgeons in the country," he said of Richardson, "and he did an incredible job on a very difficult surgery."

Richardson has been at Penn's New Bolton Center - as the Widener hospital also is known - for his entire career, arriving as an intern in 1979. He finished his undergraduate work at Dartmouth College in 1974 and earned his doctor of veterinary medicine degree at Ohio State University just before coming to Penn.

But the resume does not account for his way with words, such as telling the world so simply why a broken leg is a life-threatening injury for a horse:

"Horses don't do what you tell them to. People break their leg and they can rest it or use crutches, but a horse has to walk on it, so they're putting their recovery at risk at all times."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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