Cornell Equine Hospital surgery team saves impaled horse

Thanks to quick thinking and the surgical team at Cornell’s equine hospital, Henry – a 3-year-old warmblood, a type of horse bred for equestrian sport – is alive and on the road to recovery.

In January, Sonya Lawlis, D.V.M. ’12, had just put Henry out to pasture at her home in Freeville, New York, and had just started to walk away from him when she heard a loud snap. Henry had somehow impaled himself on the fencing: A piece of wood stuck out of his front armpit area and disappeared somewhere in the abdomen.

Elaine Claffey

Unsure how far the wood penetrated or what to do, Lawlis called the College of Veterinary Medicine Equine Hospital for advice. Within three hours, veterinarians there performed emergency surgery; they spent the next two weeks fighting drug-resistant infections and trying to avoid crippling complications.

“We tried to gently pull the sliver and it wouldn’t budge. We knew we had to bring him to the clinic,” said Lawlis, who did her internship and residency at the theriogenology section of the veterinary college. She works in a small-animal practice in Ithaca.

Dr. Elaine Claffey, instructor of large animal surgery at Cornell, could feel the wood piece under the skin by skimming the sternum with her hand. They sedated Henry and lifted his leg to get the wood out.

“It was really stubborn,” Lawlis said. “Whenever you remove an object that’s been impaled you worry it may have struck an artery and there will be heavy bleeding. What we didn’t know was that the stick had gone into Henry’s colon.”

Animals with a punctured gastrointestinal tract have a poor prognosis due to the high risk of contamination from feed contents getting into the abdomen.

“If he did make it through surgery,” Lawlis said, “he’d have a really long road to recovery and could end up with complications that would result in us putting him down anyway.”

She considered Henry’s age and lineage: Henry’s half-brother is Theodore O’Connor, a highly accomplished international event pony ridden by Olympian Karen O’Connor. Henry’s father is Waterford, a stallion at Cornell’s Equine Park who Lawlis rode during her time there.

“We decided we really wanted to try to save him,” Lawlis said. “The prognosis seemed better for Henry than average because the time from the accident to surgery was less than three hours and he was in good hands at Cornell.”

During surgery, the wound and tract into the abdomen were opened and cleaned. Because the fencing had penetrated part of the colon, this area was quickly isolated and repaired. The tract and the abdominal cavity were both carefully closed to help seal the abdomen from the wound tract as completely as possible.

After surgery, the Cornell team kept Henry in an abdominal bandage to protect the wound, as well as intensive supportive care to help prevent further complications such as peritonitis (infection of the abdominal cavity) and laminitis (a crippling disease of the hooves).

After Henry was home for a time, Lawlis brought him back to Cornell to check a soft, swollen spot in the abdominal closure. Doctors found and removed wood splinters that had worked their way to the surface and sent them for testing.

“It turned out they contained an infection that was resistant to everything under the sun,” Lawlis said. The infection was treated with daily wound care and local antibiotic therapy and Henry was fitted for a special supportive abdominal wrap called a hernia belt to try to help his body wall heal. Once again, Henry overcame the odds and his infection cleared.

Lawlis kept Henry quiet and on stall rest until he was thoroughly healed. She sedated him once or twice a day, when she had to do anything near the wound such as clean or change bandages.

Henry finally returned outside as spring approached. He must maintain a slow recovery pace as the damaged tissue strengthens, but he’s almost ready to start training. Lawlis plans to train Henry to do eventing like his half-brother.

“He’s an awesome horse so I’m really glad he made it,” Lawlis said. “I know taking him to Cornell and having surgery done so quickly after the accident made a world of difference.”

Cynthia L. McVey is a freelance writer for the College of Veterinary Medicine.

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