It's a chilly but bright morning at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square. An internationally renowned orthopedic equine surgeon, Dr. Michael Ross has donned his surgical scrubs and with a couple of visitors is making the trek from his office to an operating room. Stepping out of a special stall, a handsome three-year old standardbred-- weighing in at over a half-ton-- has been mildly sedated in preparation for surgery on a bowed tendon.
In a racehorse a bowed tendon is never a good thing. It can quickly end a career. The most susceptible tendon is the one where the cannon bone meets the knee that is asked to do the near impossible-- stretch and contract over and over as a racehorse pounds down the stretch at a racetrack, according to TheHorse.com.
The dark bay horse (the equine hospital insists on patient confidentiality) is put under heavy anesthetic via an extra-wide tube down his windpipe. As he slips into a deep sleep, his legs fold and the horse goes down. The animal's hoofs are attached to a winch which hoists him into the air. He is laid carefully on his side on a large trolley (operating table) by the attending staff and wheeled into a surgical room. The horse is draped by a blue sheet that allows for a small window over his one shaved leg. His tail has been bandaged, the hind legs covered in heavy padded shoes.
In the operating room Dr. Ross works with a team of six: an anesthetist, two highly trained residents and three special nurses all in scrubs awaiting the start of the procedure. Ross maneuvers the horse's injured left front leg into the correct position. Instructing and assisted by the pair of residents, the surgeon proceeds with great care and precision to fix the colt's superficial digital flexor tendon. The technique of cutting the superior check ligament allows roughly an extra centimeter to compensate for the loss of elasticity.
Afterward the incision is sutured up with chrome cat-gut and the area is injected (at the owner's request) with concentrated platelet rich plasma. Finally, the horse's lower left front leg is dressed with a cotton wrap. The horse will undergo a rehab program with the goal of returning to track workouts in four to five months and then to racing.
"Prognosis is good provided the horse is given prolonged rest and rehabilitation," observes Ross, a senior surgeon and professor of surgery, who lives in Chadds Ford with his wife Beth and two young children. "Some thinking is that the platelet rich plasma helps the injury heal faster and better healing. The plan is for this horse to start back training at four to five months."
Equine patients come to New Bolton from all over the country-- from multi-million dollar racehorses and stallions to highly skilled jumpers and sport horses, and treasured pleasure horses. Ross and his colleagues even work on more exotic animals. Earlier in the week he operated on an alpaca who fractured an "elbow," inserting a stainless steel plate and screws. A three-month old, she sported that quizzical alpaca look as well as a cast longer than her leg as she laid in a bed of straw with her mother.
"There have been amazing advancements in diagnostic technology and surgery techniques since I first came here," Ross reflects. "Minimally invasive arthroscopic techniques have mirrored those for humans. We've done pretty well. We have extended the useful lives of so many horses compared to the past when they needed to be humanely put down on a racetrack. By improving a horse's quality of life we are helping to lengthen their lives."
UPenn's large animal hospital of its School of Veterinary Medicine has a long and storied history. Opened in 1952, its staff at the 700-acre campus cares for horses and livestock/farm animals, handling more than 4,000 patient visits a year.
Thirty-three years ago, a sharp-eyed Ross arrived at New Bolton following graduation from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. He began riding horses at age six in Chestertown, N. Y., near Saratoga Springs. By age twelve he was showing his uncle's Western performance horses. A few years later he drove a truck and trailer traveling with his sister and her quarter horse champion to jumping competitions all over the northeast.
While attending Cornell Ross earned an internship and residency with Drs. Doug and Chris Koch, both surgeons who taught there.
"They fired me up," reflects Ross, who was valedictorian of his class at Cornell. " I always liked anatomy and surgery is really applied anatomy. Later Dr. Jack Lowe let me play doctor, doing some minor surgery in vet school. I was fortunate that people trusted me and put me in areas of responsibilities. It all started with my father having me transport my sister's horse at the age of 16. It made me rise to the occasion. Respect the position I was in and not abuse it."
Owners and trainers ship their standardbreds, thoroughbreds and sport horses to Ross from all over the country to take advantage of his expertise. He is often called away to perform operations and also lectures throughout the U. S. and in Europe. Regarded as one of the premier surgeons in the harness racing world, Ross has operated on a number of Hambletonian (the sport's most prestigious race) winners.
In addition, Ross is also the director of the nuclear medicine imaging program that he developed in 1993. Under his supervision, the scientography program has become one of the busiest of its kind in the world. Close to 10,000 horses have undergone bone scan images, a hugely important diagnostic tool in identifying the cause of lameness.
Among his past patients is the great thoroughbred DaHoss who won the 1996 Breeders' Cup Mile and then in 1998-- a year after Ross' surgery on DaHoss' hind leg-- came back to win the Breeders' Cup Mile again. NBC-TV broadcaster Tom Durkin dubbed it "the greatest comeback since Lazarus."
Recovering from anesthesia is the most dangerous time for re-injury of a horse's fracture. Forty years ago at the New Bolton Dr. Jacques Jenny developed the recovery swimming pool system that allows a horse to safely regain consciousness following anesthesia and surgery. A monorail runs from the operating room to the swimming pool. According to New Bolton's website the horse is suspended in a specially engineered harness and rubber raft in warm water, it allows the horse to float with his legs underneath him. It decreases or eliminates the re-fracturing of the just repaired limb. Once awake, the horse is hoisted from the raft and moved to the rubber-lined recovery stall where he can stand on his own.
In late 2013, show jumper Role Model tripped at Aliboo Farm, outside Chicago, and chipped off eight pieces of her accessory carpal bone. Local veterinarians recommended the horse be retired, but owner Janet Flury shipped the horse to Ross who operated to remove the chips. Last January the nine-year old mare, ridden by daughter Taylor Flury, won her class in the $25,000 St. Louis Grand Prix and is competing at a higher level than before the injury.
"Dr. Ross was very encouraging in our conversation, confident that she could return to the show ring at her former level of jumping," Flury recalls. "We followed Dr. Ross' rehab program for a year. I was very impressed by his approach-- open minded, a real sense of optimism. We can't thank Dr. Ross and the New Bolton staff enough for their expertise, skill and compassion. Plus, Dr. Ross has stayed in touch to see how the horse is progressing. It was a very refreshing experience."
After his stints in the operating theater and making the rounds at New Bolton Ross often travels into Wilmington to focus on his newest venture, Domaine Hudson. Over the past year Ross and his wife Beth have ratcheted up the original owners' culinary tradition, elevating the popular wine bar to one of the best dining experiences in the state.
So why does an equine surgeon get involved in the restaurant business?
"Despite my primary career, I always wanted to own a business and over the last few years my wife and I explored a number of opportunities," related Ross. "I've always been a bit of a risk taker, so when the restaurant became available, my wife Beth and I did due our diligence and jumped at it."
Late one afternoon Ross and a visitor share a glass of a full bodied white wine he discovered on a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy. He talks about the personal fulfillment of his day job, fixing broken horses.
"A good day for me is spent in the operating theater working on the patient," Ross says. "It's my chance to be an artist as well as mentor the residents. I'm proud of the role I play in their training and advancement. It gives me a huge sense of satisfaction."