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September 4, 2013

Cautious optimism for burned horse Northstar's recovery

MEADVILLE — What a difference a year makes.

At this time last year, Jessie K. Woodworth was horrified when she found one of her horses — Northstar — had been deliberately set on fire by someone, causing burns to almost half of the horse’s body while it was in a pasture near her home. The horse lost its mane and was burned down his back to his hindquarters, she said.

Now, Northstar, a 7-year-old horse, is well on the road to recovery due to specialized care which included skin grafts received from The Ohio State University’s Galbreath Equine Center in Columbus, Ohio, Woodworth said.

These days, Northstar is back in the northwest Pennsylvania area under the care of a private veterinarian awaiting further grafts once the animal fully recovers from a bout of pneumonia and an infection contracted this summer. Woodworth declined to disclose Northstar’s location.

Woodworth is calling Northstar’s recovery so far from the burns nothing short of a miracle.

“His head is up. He’s alert. He’s coping well,” Woodworth said. “He’s being allowed to be a horse again.”

Northstar’s lead veterinarian at Ohio State, Dr. Samuel Hurcombe, agrees the animal’s recovery has been phenomenal.

“Northstar has done amazingly well to have come as far as he has in a year following a horrific injury,” Hurcombe said in an email to the Tribune. Hurcombe is an assistant professor of equine emergency and critical care veterinarian at Ohio State. “Northstar has healed well enough that he is able to be outside, graze, even roll occasionally with minimal disruption to his healing, which for his mental well-being, is a truly wonderful thing.”

Northstar’s burns happened in late August 2012 while in Woodworth’s pasture in Athens Township, according to Pennsylvania State Police at Corry. Northstar was doused with a flammable liquid and set afire sometime between 7 p.m. Aug. 25 and 6 p.m. Aug. 26, state police said.

Trooper Curtis Guntrum, the lead criminal investigator on the case, said no arrests have been made and he won’t comment on specifics of the investigation.

“It’s still an active investigation and we’re working it pretty much daily,” Guntrum said, declining additional comment.

Being set on fire caused first-, second- and third-degree burns to approximately 40 percent of Northstar’s body.

Northstar was taken Sept. 5, 2012, to the Galbreath Equine Center at Columbus, Ohio, and put under the care of Hurcombe. Northstar’s treatment at Ohio State University has been paid by an anonymous donor, according to both Hurcombe and Woodworth.

While appalled at the extent of Northstar’s injuries when he arrived, Hurcombe and other specialists at the Galbreath Center have became cautiously optimistic about Northstar’s chance of recovery over time.

The reason for optimism is Northstar has benefited from the latest therapies in wound management by the Galbreath Center’s team of specialists.

Northstar has had two major skin grafts to help reduce the area of skin and hair loss resulting from his injury. Northstar also has received a series of minor skin grafts and cell-based therapy to heal his wounds.

In the cell-based therapy, Northstar’s own skin cells, harvested earlier in his treatment and grown for several weeks in a laboratory, were introduced into his most severely affected wound areas.

The goal of both the minor skin grafts and cell-based therapy procedures were the same though the techniques were different, Hurcombe said.

“Grafts are like laying sod for immediate coverage and cell-based therapy is like planting seeds for growth and eventual coverage,” he said. “Though this type of cell-based therapy has never been done in horses, we don’t foresee any harm as they are his own cells and hopeful we will see good results.”

But, the large wound on Northstar’s back required major skin grafts and the horse had exposed bone at the base of its neck as a result of the burns.

Hurcombe worked with Dr. Larry Jones, a human burn specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, for those large-scale grafts.

The two doctors observed each other’s surgeries and studied human and veterinary medicine journal articles before determining Northstar would need large skin graft surgeries.

One of the challenges for the large grafts was how deep to set the tool that would peel off the donor skin, according to Jones.

“We want to take the top layer of skin but we also need a portion of the second layer, the dermis,” Jones said.

After consulting with each other and doing additional research, Jones and Hurcombe decided to take a skin graft that was about twice as thick as what would be taken if the patient were human.

The doctors removed ultrathin sheets of skin from Northstar’s chest and belly to use as donor skin and expanded those sheets with a meshing tool before placing the grafts across the enormous wound spanning the horse’s back.

“When the graft takes, the holes will fill in from skin cells growing from the edges,” Jones said.

The wounds were dressed with bandages containing medical-grade silver, which functions as an antibiotic, to speed healing of the grafts and donor sites.

According to the doctors, the location of Northstar’s back wound is tricky to treat because even with secure bandages from his neck to his tail, the horse anatomy in the location of the burn is such that Northstar’s every movement slightly disturbs the grafted areas.

Northstar is expected to have additional sheet graft surgeries within the next year to heal the wound.

To help Northstar cope with the surgeries, the animal is being treated with gabapentin, a medicine to treat the severe itching and nerve-related pain that is typical in burn patients as they recover.

“We are extremely pleased with his healing progress but there is more work to be done,” Hurcombe said. “From a welfare standpoint, his psychology is great and after what he’s gone through, the fact that he is still so trusting of people is pretty amazing.”

The doctors hope Northstar will have a complete layer of skin coverage by his 8th birthday in January.

As for Woodworth, she is leaving Northstar’s care in the hands of the veterinarians.

“Things are going so well right now,” she said. “We’ll let the professionals handle it. They’re the ones that know best.”

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