On a sunny spring afternoon I got the chance to visit New Bolton Center, part of University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine.
Located on 700 acres of picturesque farmland, the center is home to one of the premier veterinary clinics in North America, the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals.
From camels and cows to swine and horses, the center is a hub for diagnosis, treatment, innovation, and practical application. My tour began at the Widener Hospital, conveniently the first building I saw after I entered the center. Finding my way to meet my guide, I was immediately awed by the sweeping grounds dedicated to veterinary medicine and science at New Bolton Center.
Internationally renowned for its history of excellence and superior standard of care, the Widener Hospital is undoubtedly the most well-known facility at New Bolton Center. Complimented by a passionate staff of personnel, the center retains a refreshing air of optimism. Vibrant, enthusiastic faces seemed to be around every bend; it’s a treat to see people working in an environment they truly enjoy.
Associate Dean and Executive Hospital Director Dr. Corinne Sweeney points out that “as Hospital Director of New Bolton Center, my job is helping facilitate the great people who work here do their jobs. No one has to tell them what to do. No one has to tell them how to do it. Everyone here is self-motivated, leaders in their field, bright and talented. Their concern is both for the patients and for those who love those patients – that drives everyone in this community to do their absolute best.”
“It’s that passion for their patient that makes everyone try a little harder, think outside the box a little more, and keep on top of their game so they know every possibility has been considered, every option has been offered, and each owner knows they’ve done the best by their horse,” says Dr. Corinne Sweeney
With an annual caseload of more than 6,000 patients receiving emergency, routine and specialized veterinary care, the Widener Hospital buzzes with activity as my guide and I pass a large dairy cow entering one of the surgical suites. We stop and watch as the heifer enters and is prepped. Three men in scrubs handle the animal in a room that looks fit for a human medical procedure. I watch in awe, half expecting the next patient to be a person – or maybe a famous equine-athlete.
“New Bolton Center sees all sorts of large animal patients, but the predominant patients are horses, most of them performance horses,” Sweeney says. “Some of the more common equine surgical procedures are elective arthroscopy or emergency colic surgery. It’s not unusual on any given day to see a horse in the hospital with pneumonia, diarrhea, or with an ophthalmologic problem, or have horses arriving for outpatient evaluation of a lameness, upper respiratory, or cardiac problem[s].”
New Bolton Center is furnished with a full range of state-of-the-art equipment and technology fostering innovation responsible for developments like the first-ever equine recovery pool in the C. Mahlon Kline Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center. Developed by one of equine surgery’s leading innovators, Dr. Jacques Jenny, in 1975, the pool allows animals to safely emerge from general anesthesia after surgery.
Due to the animal’s instinctive reactions to move around after awakening, doctors and clinicians suspend the animal in a rubber raft in a heated pool. This technique safeguards the patient from thrashing and re-injuring itself and from the stress of its own weight. Staffed by 27 clinicians, 20 interns and residents, 13 certified veterinary technicians and 15 nursing assistants, the Widener Hospital is equipped to handle the most sensitive, specialized cases.
In May 2006, New Bolton Center received national attention after Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was admitted to the Widener hospital in hopes of repairing a hind leg injury sustained at the Preakness Stakes. After a six-hour procedure, the surgical team headed by Dr. Dean Richardson stabilized the leg, which was broken in more than 20 places.
In keeping with New Bolton Center’s history of excellence and innovation, Dr. Richardson implemented technology originally designed for humans into the procedure. The team implanted a stainless steel Locking Compression Plate (LCP) into the colt’s injured leg with 27 screws to ensure maximum strength.
During the following eight months Barbaro’s recovery seemed promising. The colt was seen walking around, grazing, and even showing interest in mares at the center. The leg bones had fused, yet a severe case of laminitis was developing in the other three limbs that would prove too much for the athlete to overcome that winter.
Essential to accommodating pool recoveries as well as more invasive and complex procedures like that of Barbaro’s is an overhead monorail system that has been safely and efficiently transporting patients at the New Bolton Center for more than 35 years.
While making our way through operating rooms and padded recovery stalls, my guide points out a track running above us that supports the overhead monorail. Using slings to move animals while ensuring maximum comfort, this carefully designed system is crucial in the transportation of large, often injured or unconscious animals.
According to Richardson, “The majority of modern equine hospitals have overhead monorail systems to move horses from recovery stalls to operating rooms. The major difference in our system is that we have a monorail that goes from the operating room to the recovery pool and then all the way out into four different stalls in the barn and intensive care facility. It is the system that requires the fewest personnel and it has proven very safe to move horses suspended by their limbs.”
The long-term use of this overhead monorail system is representative of the carefully planned, quality work that prevails at the center. The care at New Bolton Center pays off in the form of an enriched quality of life – usually for the animal but often for pleased owners as well.
The newest building at New Bolton Center is the James M. Moran Jr. Critical Care Center, completed in 2010. The final stop on my tour, this facility required a wardrobe change to enter. As a dedicated isolation facility, the Moran Center is a key element to success for critically ill patients. Due to the high susceptibility of hospitalized patients acquiring or passing on infectious agents, the Center isolates them by providing independent ventilation to each stall.
The building’s design is based on the latest research in isolation protocols and houses two isolation wings. Animals suffering from infectious diseases are housed in one isolation wing separated from patients recovering from colic or other gastrointestinal surgery in the second wing.
Sweeney later points out that the unparalleled level of specialized care that the James M. Moran Jr. Critical Care Center is capable of providing “is an amazing resource to horse owners in the area – it allows our medical and critical care specialists to provide state-of-the-art care to the most critically ill patient. Having access to such a facility and experts can mean the difference between life and death of a patient.”
Witnessing such a seamless integration of the latest in veterinary medical care made for nothing short of an astounding, eye-opening day. For someone like myself who grew up around small farms and the Four-H, stepping onto the grounds of the New Bolton Center felt like getting a behind-the-scenes tour of a professional sports team’s training facility.
Though the experience seemed overwhelming at times due to my own limited knowledge of veterinary science, what continually grounded my understanding of the center is its ceaseless commitment to providing patients as well as their owners the absolute finest in care and service.