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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The winner of the Kentucky Derby, Barbaro, continues to improve after weekend surgery.

The colt shattered his right hind leg in Saturday's Preakness. Barbaro's surgeon, Dean Richardson, says he's now encouraged.

Dr. DEAN RICHARDSON (Veterinary Surgeon): He's got absolutely normal vital signs. He actually was scratching his left ear with his left hind leg, which is his good leg.

INSKEEP: For those of us who are not horse people, that is a good sign. Because it means that Barbaro was comfortable putting weight on his bad leg in order to lift the good one.

Not too long ago, vets would not even have tried to save Barbaro. NPR's Julie Rovner, who is a horse person, traveled to his hospital yesterday to find out what has changed.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Barbaro is recuperating in the intensive care unit at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. The hospital has set up an e-mail address for people to send Barbaro messages. That surprised Dr. Dean Richardson.

Dr. RICHARDSON: I'm a little upset. This is the first I heard about the e-mail, because, we actually don't have a keyboard in his stall, yet.

ROVNER: But that's about the only place at New Bolton where you won't find the very latest in high-tech medical equipment.

Other than animal footsteps, and wards with stalls instead of beds, New Bolton looks like many human hospitals. There's a neo-natal unit, a sports medicine facility, even a giant treadmill.

In radiology, where patients include horses, sheep, goats, antelope, even an occasional elephant, Dr. Lexi(ph) McKnight runs the giant MRI machine.

Dr. ALEXIA MCKNIGHT (Assistant Professor of Radiology, New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania): It's similar to an Oreo cookie without the cream in the middle. And in between there's a space to position a portion of the body such as their head or their ankle or their foot, where we can acquire images about the anatomy.

ROVNER: On the other side of a padded wall, a horse and a goat are undergoing routine surgery in the same room. Vets here have advanced farthest, though, in caring for horses with critical injuries like Barbaro's.

Ms. JOAN HENDRICKS (Dean, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania): You know, everybody's focused on the injury, but the entire other 999 pounds of the horse, besides that one bone, the level of care that we've learned to do here with the intensive care unit, it's 24/7 and it has been for ten or 15 years now.

ROVNER: Joan Hendricks is the Dean of the University's School of Veterinary Medicine. She says a broken leg has long been a life-threatening event for a horse, because you can't just put them on bed rest.

Ms. HENDRICKS: If a horse doesn't bear weight evenly on all four legs, the legs that are not injured suffer terrible inflammation and changes in blood flow. And that, in itself, can be, you can't sustain the horse.

ROVNER: And the most dangerous time is not the surgery, but what happens when you wake the horse up.

Ms. HENDRICKS: Anybody waking up from anesthesia is confused and kind of thrashes around. I mean, that's not just horses. But here we have a young, large animal and, in some cases, particularly anxious.

ROVNER: That thrashing around, in fact, is what led to the death of the Champion filly Ruffian, who broke down at Belmont Park in 1975. So New Bolton has pioneered the wake up pool. Anesthetized horses are lowered into a rubber raft that fits over the animals legs like a giant horse glove, then lowered into a pool.

New Bolton's development director Jane Simone describes how it works.

Ms. JANE SIMONE (Development Director, New Bolton Center): At one end of this raft is an inflatable area that, once the animal is in the water, we inflate that, and the recovery team sits around the animals head to make sure that as it awakes it is kept calm.

ROVNER: But it's a very labor-intensive process.

Ms. SIMONE: There's a huge crew on hand to recover an animal in a pool. About a dozen were here for Barbaro, and always a technician at the head of the animal, and Dr. Richardson frequently coming in to check on him.

ROVNER: And all that care does not come cheap. Barbaro's bills will certainly run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Vet school dean, Joan Hendricks, says veterinary medicine is facing the same dilemma as medicine for humans: there's a growing gap between what doctors can do and what people can afford.

Ms. HENDRICKS: As we become more capable of doing extraordinary things that sometimes work, and that everybody really wants - everybody loves their animal or, you know, family member - and wants the absolute ultimate to be done. How does society afford that for any living creature?

ROVNER: Money is not the issue for Barbaro's owners, who are major donors to New Bolton.

Gretchen Jackson, who owns the horse with her husband, says they would have done the same even if Barbaro didn't have a potential future as a breeding stallion.

Ms. GRETCHEN JACKSON (Owner of Barbaro): I hope there's some knowledge now, that owners, and trainers, and jockeys care. It's not about money. It's more about the horse. And what's better than love? I don't know.

ROVNER: Julie Rovner, NPR News.

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