KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. - The doctor who helped save Barbaro’s life strides out of his office, plops into a chair and bangs his hands on the table in front of him.
“So,” he begins, “what do you want me to say?”
It is a strange and exhausting time for the cocky and self-confident Dean Richardson, head of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals, nestled near the Delaware state line where strip malls and multimillion-dollar horse farms live side-by-side but worlds apart.
He is one of the country’s best horse surgeons. And he reconnected the pulverized right hind leg of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, a dark bay thoroughbred who charged ahead by 6½ lengths to win at Churchill Downs — only to break down seconds out of the gate at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, his foot flaring at gruesome angles before a gasping crowd at Pimlico Race Course and millions of television viewers.
Since the May 20 calamity, Richardson has become an instant celebrity. He is as blunt as his crewcut hair. He says exactly what he thinks — in daily news conferences, on the morning talk-show circuit and during stand-ups on CNN. But his colleagues are not surprised that he is feisty and cracks wise.
“If he hadn’t spoken directly, like the way he is, I would have wondered, ’Who is that man? And what has he done with Dean Richardson?“’ said Dr. Corinne Sweeney, the hospital’s executive director. She has known him since he walked in the hospital doors 27 years ago as a first-year intern.
What was he like then?
Sweeney laughs long and hard. “Much like he is now,” she says. “Except he’s mellowed.” Then she lapses into more laughter.
“As a surgeon, I would say he’s the best, but then he’d smack me on the head and say, ’I’m not the only one who can do this.”’
What Richardson did, in more than five hours of surgery, was fuse a jigsaw puzzle of bones and flesh with a metal plate and 27 screws. The horse’s cannon bone, above the ankle, was broken. His sesamoid bone, behind the ankle, was snapped. The long pastern bone, below the ankle, was shattered into more than 20 pieces. His ankle was dislocated.
Richardson originally pronounced the now-beloved race horse’s injuries the “most catastrophic” he’d ever tried to repair.
Most horses with such injuries, he warned, “would have been put down at the race track.” Nearly two weeks out, Barbaro is not down. He improves daily, eats like a horse, nuzzles his visitors, astounds his doctor.
But Richardson remains unswayed by his patient’s high spirits.
“The problems we face with these kinds of injuries don’t always happen in the first five days or the first five weeks,” Richardson said in a recent interview at his hospital. “I keep saying that.”
Being direct is part of a plan conceived by medical center administrators.
“This is a huge risk for us to be so honest with the press. Because if it goes badly, we’ll all look worse. But we made a decision to tell the story as straight as we could tell it,” the 52-year-old surgeon said.
But after all his media appearances — and the added burden of treating the most famous patient of his long career — Richardson may have gotten more than he bargained for. He does not abide fools. Or what he deems foolish questions.
Asked what he thought when he first saw Barbaro’s battered leg, Richardson replied, “I don’t have X-ray vision, you know. I couldn’t see inside his leg.”
He is no less blunt in dealing with medical students, especially when conducting rounds, a process the more meek of heart find a terrifying ordeal, his colleagues said.
“His students are very intimidated. He expects a lot,” says second-year intern David Levine, who assisted in Barbaro’s surgery. “He’s going to keep asking questions until you get one wrong,” he said, and like Sweeney, started laughing.
Not a word was said about their patient’s fame during surgery.
“We all knew who the horse was, obviously,” Levine said. “That doesn’t need to be said. Everyone who works here is at the top of their game. We get a lot of famous horses in here. We treat them all with the same level of skill and care.”
Yet Richardson seems a bit baffled by the Barbaro limelight he has stepped into. And by the avalanche of flowers, apples, carrots and oranges from everyday people who also send along suggestions for treating Barbaro — as if he were a human being.
Horses in the Belmont Stakes on June 8 will face tighter security for the second straight year.