Recovery Pool at Penn Vet's New Bolton Center Gives Horses a Leg Up After Surgery

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Media Contact:Evan Lerner | elerner@upenn.edu | 215-573-6604May 9, 2012

KENNETT SQUARE — Horses weigh more than half a ton and can sleep standing up, so as surgical patients, they can’t recuperate in a cushy bed. To make matters more complicated, waking up after anesthesia wears off can be a difficult process for horses; most are awakened in padded enclosures to reduce the chance of them injuring themselves or attending veterinarians as they regain the strength to stand.  But sometimes padded walls aren’t enough.

A horse whose shattered leg was just repaired might undo all of the surgeon’s work, or worse, by trying to stand too fast or by thrashing in confusion as the anesthesia wears off.

For those extreme cases, the George D. Widener Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center has a dramatic solution: a recovery pool. Located in the hospital’s C. Mahlon Kline Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center, the pool was devised by the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Jacques Jenny, the father of equine orthopedic surgery, in 1975. It has seen many streamlining improvements since.  

Using a rail-based harness system, horses are moved from surgery into the recovery room and fitted into a rubber raft with legs, which keeps them dry and their heads above water. After being lowered into the pool, horses remain there until they fully wake and appear ready to stand on their own.  A horse might stay in the pool for as little as 45 minutes, but recovery time is based on the level of sedation and other factors.

“For horses with certain injuries, by the time they are transported to the hospital and are readied for surgery, they can be absolutely exhausted,” said Dean Richardson, chief of large animal surgery at Widener. “Those horses can sit there in the pool for four or five hours — perfectly happy — until they show signs that they’re ready to get out.

“It helps them stand up better after anesthesia if they’ve had a chance to recover their strength,” he said.     

While less than a tenth of the thousands of equine patients treated at Widener each year are recovered in the pool, those horses are the ones with the most pressing needs. Richardson’s most famous patient, Barbaro, the champion racehorse who suffered multiple leg fractures in the 2006 Preakness Stakes, made use of the recovery pool after each of his many surgeries.     

Widener’s recovery pool is one of only a handful of such systems in the world, but the others are less complicated and have their horses fully immersed in water. Only a place like Widener, with its tremendous caseload, sees enough patients to justify the high maintenance and operation costs. But for those patients, it can be the first step on the road to recovery.

“It can be a difference-maker on the most extreme cases,” Richardson said.

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