Meadville Tribune

September 4, 2013

Cautious optimism for burned horse Northstar's recovery

By Keith Gushard
Meadville Tribune

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.”

You can help

A $3,000 reward is being offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction of those responsible for injuries to Northstar. The Crawford County Humane Society and the Humane Society of the United States are offering the reward.

People with information about the injuries to Northstar are asked to contact Pennsylvania State Police at Corry at (814) 663-2043 or (800) 922-1975.

Northstar Equine Foundation Inc.

Following the injuries to Northstar, the Northstar Equine Foundation was formed to provide assistance to critically abused, neglected and/or injured animals and to become a catalyst to strengthen the animal cruelty laws in Pennsylvania. The volunteer-run organization has applied for tax-exempt status in spring 2013. The Foundation is registered with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Bureau of Charitable Organizations under certificate No. 42162.

- Donations may be sent to: Northstar Equine Foundation Inc., P.O. Box 3918, Erie, Pa. 16508.

- More information: Contact Jayne May, president/founder of the Northstar Equine Foundation, at (814) 868-7963; or by email at

- More information online: Visit or

Learn more

Visit and search “Northstar” for more information on the surgery.

Sidebar Other Animal Cruelty Cases

There have been several cases of animal cruelty in eastern Crawford County within the last 12 months in addition to the Northstar case.

However, Trooper Curtis Guntrum of the Pennsylvania State Police at Corry said none of the cases apparently are related to each other.

- William E. Daly III, 22, of 125 E. Main St., Titusville, was sentenced in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas on April 19 to serve four to 12 months in county jail plus 12 months probation after pleading guilty to one count of animal cruelty. Daly admitted to leaving a dog alone in a Troy Township home on Crowther Road in August 2012 without food or water for one and one-half months, killing the animal.

- A horse and a goat at the Tim Schlabach farm on Route 285 in Fairfield Township were doused with bright fluorescent paint overnight Sept. 9, 2012. No arrests have been in the case.

- A female sheep was shot and killed at a Troy Township farm along Mosgrove Road between 8 p.m. May 18 and 9:30 a.m. May 20 this year, according to state police. The sheep’s owner estimated the ewe’s value at about $1,000 since it was used to produce lambs for market.

- Eric T. St. John, 20, of 40984 Recks Road, Centerville, is scheduled to go to trial in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas on one count of animal cruelty for allegedly shooting and wounding his neighbor’s Labrador retriever.