Some of the hundreds of messages and gifts sent by well-wishers are displayed at the gate to New Bolton and on Barbaro’s stall.

New Bolton’s Widener Hospital is one of the busiest veterinary clinics in the nation, treating more than 6,000 patients on site per year. Another 19,000 cases are seen by its field service. Facilities include the C. Mahlon Kline Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center, where Richardson performed Barbaro’s five-hour surgery, and the unique recovery pool in which Barbaro safely emerged from anesthesia. Barbaro is recuperating in the Connelly Intensive Care Unit, which features climate-controlled stalls that are monitored from a central nursing station, as well as a monorail system to move patients from the recovery pool area or surgical suites.

New Bolton also has its own farrier shop, in which a special horseshoe that has been applied to Barbaro’s left hind foot—the good one—was designed and patented. “One of the complications that can occur following leg fractures in horses is the risk of developing laminitis [a potentially fatal hoof problem] in the opposite foot from bearing extra weight,” says farrier Rob Sigafoos. “To reduce the risk, we applied a supportive shoe to Barbaro’s left hind foot immediately following surgery.”

Richardson felt “fairly confident” that Barbaro would wake up from the surgery, but he didn’t know for sure until he felt the warmth of the animal’s foot and the strength of its pulse, which meant that his blood supply had been maintained. Another good sign was that the skin, while very badly bruised, hadn’t been broken, decreasing the chances for infection. But the operation was much more complicated than Richardson had expected, requiring a bone graft from the horse’s pelvis to replace pieces of the bone that had shattered.

“We ended up doing what we had planned; it was just harder than I’d hoped,” he told the Inquirer. He put in 27 screws and a 16-hole steel plate, inserting screws into some pieces “barely more than a centimeter wide.”

“It was a very, very difficult surgery,” Richardson explained after the operation. “But to be honest, I would have worked that hard on the same case if it were a $5,000 gelding.” (In fact, Richardson had performed a plate-and-fusion of a fetlock, one procedure he used in Barbaro’s surgery, on just this type of horse a few weeks before; the horse went home from New Bolton a day after Barbaro’s surgery.) When he was asked at a May 30 press conference if it took “courage” for him to perform the surgery on what might be construed a “hopeless” case, Richardson replied, “Clearly it’s not courageous to do your job.”

Richardson is regarded as a leading international expert on equine fractures, and has performed more than his fair share of complicated reconstructions. “Dean is such a perfectionist that he may tell you that he never performed this exact surgery before, but he and others have fixed many permutations of fractures as complicated as Barbaro’s,” says Sweeney.

“We don’t get the opportunity to see as many of these complicated orthopedic cases as human trauma doctors do,” Richardson explains. “And yes, money is a factor but there are a lot of people who do this because they love their horses.”

It’s a sentiment he discovered for himself as a college freshman at Dartmouth, when he took a riding class to fulfill the physical education requirement—and was instantly smitten. The would-be actor switched his major to biology and began contemplating a career that would involve horses. “To be fair, I also learned I wasn’t a very good actor,” he adds with a laugh. Following graduation, he took a technician job with an equine hospital in Southern Pines, North Carolina, and then enrolled in vet school at Ohio State, where he met his future wife, a small-animal veterinarian. He returned to New Bolton in 1979 for his internship and has been there ever since. Richardson still rides, plays basketball once a week, and is a “competitive” golfer. He is also a dedicated teacher. “I am sure Dr. Richardson did not miss one teaching moment during Barbaro’s surgery,” says Sweeney. “We will all be learning from Barbaro, just like we learn from every one of our patients.”

At the moment, Barbaro is proving to be a model patient, which has helped his recuperation. “This is a classy, well-behaved colt who literally doesn’t do anything wrong,” Richardson says in an interview two weeks after Barbaro’s surgery. “He’s doing great right now—better than I could have possibly hoped.” Barbaro was completely off antibiotics, receiving minimum levels of painkillers, and “tolerating things very well.” The Jacksons visit every day, donning sterile booties and gowns each time they enter his stall, and a retinue of caregivers attend to his every need. “Horses adapt remarkably well to living in a stall,” Richardson says. “He gets groomed, massaged, bathed, and plenty of TLC.”

Although the situation could change at any time, if all continues to go well, Richardson expects Barbaro to be in the hospital for two-to-three months, eventually going outside and walking on a lead. “We’re shooting for him to be turned out in a field,” he says.

The Jacksons’ goal for Barbaro is for him to lead a “pain-free life,” regardless of whether or not that includes a career as a stallion. “It would be a dream come true to see little Barbaros, but for us, pain-free is enough,” Gretchen says. “He could live on our farm and eat grass for the rest of his life, and that would be fine.” And how will she know his physical status? “You can tell how a horse feels by the way he carries himself and by looking into his eyes,” she explains. “I will know. It’s one of the gifts animals give us.”

Another, of course, is the memory of perfection—that striking snapshot of the Jacksons’ blue and green colors striding side by side, with one set ultimately pulling away. “To get one [horse] to the Kentucky Derby is enough, but to have two of them run is amazing. It was a wonderful experience,” says Roy. “A lifetime dream,” concurs Gretchen. “He is the best horse we ever had and raced. He’s striking, and he’s also sensible. He’s always done the right thing at the right time.”

Certainly Barbaro’s legions of fans continue to hope his recovery will be swift. Asked why they think their horse has captured the attention of the world, Gretchen attributes it to the human penchant of being “hungry for a hero.” Richardson has another take: “This horse gave his all, and his owners are doing their all to save his life.”

Kathryn Levy Feldman is a freelance writer based in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Her article, “Saving Bentley” [July/Aug 2003], also dealt with the vet school’s work. For continuing medical updates, to send Barbaro a message, or to contribute to the Barbaro Fund to improve equipment and services at New Bolton, visit (www.vet.upenn.edu).

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/06

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FEATURE: Something about Barbaro
By Kathryn Levy Feldman