The Columbus DispatchFriday February 8, 2013 6:07 AM
Five months after an arsonist started a fire that burned off 40 percent of Northstar’s skin, recovery is becoming a reality for the American Paint horse whose story has touched people around the world.
“Northstar has surprised us beyond our expectations,” said Dr. Sam Hurcombe, the veterinarian in charge of the horse’s care at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center.
The horse came to the clinic’s equine center in late August after an arsonist coated him with a flammable liquid and set it ablaze in the pasture of his owner’s farm in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania. Large parts of Northstar’s skin were burned off — down to the bone in two places — and his survival was questionable.
Although veterinarians occasionally care for burned horses, few treatment protocols exist, so Hurcombe and the other veterinarians had to improvise. They spent months carefully sloughing off dead tissue, applying an antiseptic commonly used on humans.
To replace the burned skin, they cultured and grew some of Northstar’s healthy skin cells. Then they injected the new cells beneath the granular tissue they hope will regenerate as skin.
They removed sections of undamaged skin from Northstar’s chest, cut them up and attached them as skin grafts to his back and neck. Throughout the process, they’ve bandaged the damaged areas over and over to prevent infection and promote skin growth and healing.
That has led to another challenge: how to control Northstar’s natural tendency to scratch the itchy healing tissue.
A human neuropathic pain medication helps some. But mechanical methods offer the best deterrence.
Those include a neck cradle — similar to a cone for a dog — that’s strapped on to keep him from biting his skin and a metal wire above the stall that’s attached to his neck to keep him from lying down to scratch.
“He’d be down in an instant otherwise, rolling around,” Hurcombe said.
Northstar also wears a thin, form-fitting cover on his neck and back to keep his bandages in place and keep germs out.
“We call him the caped crusader,” technician Amanda Hutcheson said.
By treating Northstar, vets at the equine center have learned valuable techniques for future patients, Hurcombe said. They’ve also realized how important it has been to keep the horse’s spirits up by moving him to a farm to relax between procedures.
Hurcombe estimates that about half of Northstar’s damaged skin has healed. He hopes the rest will heal by next year. His owners, an anonymous donor and a foundation set up to help Northstar are paying for the horse’s care, which has cost more than $40,000.
The arsonist responsible for the injuries hasn’t been found.