Photography By Jim Graham

Feature

The Healing Hands of One Local Equine Surgeon

Dr. Mike Ross helps countless horses get back on their feet.

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On a chilly, bright morning at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, Dr. Michael Ross dons his surgical scrubs and, with a couple of visitors, makes 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 is the tendon where the cannon bone meets the knee and is asked to do the near impossible—stretch and contract over and over as a horse pounds down the stretch on a track. 

The dark bay horse (the 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, the his legs fold and he goes down. The animal’s hoofs are attached to a winch that hoists him into the air. He is laid carefully on his side on a large trolley-style operating table by the attending staff and wheeled into a surgical room. A blue sheet allows for a small window over his one shaved leg. His tail has been bandaged, the hind legs covered in heavy padded shoes. 

Courtesy of Jim Graham.

In the operating room, the internationally renowned orthopedic equine surgeon works with a team of six: an anesthetist, two highly trained residents and three special nurses, all in scrubs and awaiting the start of the procedure. Ross maneuvers the horse’s injured left front leg into the correct position. Assisted by the residents and instructing them along the way, he 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 with chromic 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.

“The prognosis is good, provided the horse is given prolonged rest and rehabilitation,” says Ross, a senior surgeon and professor of surgery, who lives in Chadds Ford with his wife, Beth, and two young kids. “Some thinking is that the platelet-rich plasma helps the injury heal faster and better. The plan is for this horse to start training again in four to five months.”

Equine patients—from multimillion-dollar racehorses and stallions to highly skilled jumpers and sport horses to treasured pleasure horses—come to the Kennett Square facility from all over the country. Ross and his colleagues also work on more exotic animals. Earlier in the week, he operated on an alpaca  that fractured an “elbow,” inserting a stainless-steel plate and screws. As she lay in a bed of straw with her mother, the three-month-old sported that quizzical alpaca look, along with a cast longer than her leg.

“There have been amazing advancements in diagnostic technology and surgery techniques since I first came here,” Ross says. “Minimally invasive arthroscopic techniques have mirrored those for humans. We’ve done pretty well. We’ve 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 at its School of Veterinary Medicine has a long and storied history. Opened in 1952, it cares for horses, livestock and farm animals, handling more than 4,000 patient visits a year on its 700-acre campus. 

The horse will undergo a rehab program with the goal of returning to track workouts in four to five months, and then racing.

Thirty-three years ago, a sharp-eyed Ross arrived at New Bolton following graduation from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. He had begun riding horses at age six in Chestertown, N.Y., near Saratoga Springs. By age 12, 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 had an internship and residency with Drs. Doug and Chris Koch, both surgeons who taught there. “They fired me up,” he recalls. “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 responsibility. 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.”

Courtesy of Jim Graham.

Owners and trainers ship their standardbreds, thoroughbreds and sport horses to Ross from all over the country. Regarded as one of the premier surgeons in the harness-racing world, Ross has operated on a number of winners at Hambletonian, the sport’s most prestigious race. He is often called away to perform operations and also lectures throughout the U.S. and in Europe.

In addition, Ross is the director of the nuclear-medicine imaging program 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 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 New Bolton, Dr. Jacques Jenny developed the recovery swimming-pool system, which allows a horse to safely regain consciousness following anesthesia and surgery. 

A monorail runs from the operating room to the pool. New Bolton’s website explains that the horse is suspended in a specially engineered harness and rubber raft in warm water, which allows him to float with his legs underneath him. It decreases or eliminates 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 her to Ross, who operated to remove the chips. Last January, the nine-year-old mare—ridden by Janet’s daughter, Taylor Flury—won her class in the $25,000 St. Louis Grand Prix. She’s competing at a higher level than ever.

Courtesy of Jim Graham.

“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 his rehab program for a year. I was impressed by his approach—open minded, a real sense of optimism. We can’t thank him 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, Mike and Beth Ross 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 a surgeon get involved in the restaurant business?

“Despite my primary career, I always wanted to own a business,” he says. “Over the last few years, we explored a number of opportunities. I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker, so when the restaurant became available, we did our due diligence and jumped at it.”

But he’s still most fulfilled at his day job—fixing broken horses.

“A good day for me is spent in the operating theater working on a patient,” Ross says. “It’s my chance to be an artist, as well as mentor the residents. It gives me a huge sense of satisfaction.”

The Hunt Fall 2015  Issue

This article was published in Feature from the Fall 2015 issue.
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