Patching up Pearl


Drs. Ryan Shoemaker and Lana Delaney with Pearl. Photo: John Lucas, Edmonton Journal.

For equine surgeon Dr. Ryan Shoemaker of Sherwood Park, Alta., a typical day involves treating a wide variety of equine clients that often include high-end race horses and show horses.

But the guiding principle for him and the other veterinarians at Delaney Veterinary Services Ltd. remains the same whether they’re working with valuable race horses or backyard ponies: No matter what, the horse comes first.

Shoemaker and his colleagues had a chance to apply that credo when Susan Fyfe, director of the Rescue 100 Horses Foundation, asked for their help with a rescue horse named Pearl.

The eight- or nine-year-old bay mare had been brought to the foundation in December 2009 with a large hole in her face. She’d obviously been living with the injury for some time, and the open wound was constantly infected.

“We were on the hunt for someone to help Pearl – someone who would do the best job and with the least stress to her,” recalls Fyfe. “Then Ryan stepped forward and said that he would donate the surgery to us. With all of his credentials and his experience, how could you look a gift horse in the mouth?”

So Fyfe and her organization set to work fundraising, ending up with about $2,500 to help cover the costs associated with the surgery. There was a delay when they discovered that Pearl was pregnant – in May 2010, she gave birth to a healthy palomino filly, Diva’s Jewel. But finally in July 2010, Shoemaker was able to proceed with the facial reconstruction.

Although the equine surgeon had worked with two similar head trauma cases before, Pearl presented a greater challenge because the majority of the hole was in her nasal passage – a very important area for humidifying the air and warming it up before it gets to the lungs. Shoemaker’s goal was to reconstruct her nasal bone in order to stop the air from going in through the top of Pearl’s nose.

His biggest problem was finding enough tissue to close the large hole on Pearl’s head. “There’s not a lot of extra skin on the horse, especially on its head,” Shoemaker explains. “And because skin isn’t the best platform to build any reconstruction, we actually opened the skin and peeled the covering of the bone off and then folded it down like you would turn a page in a book so that it covered that big hole in her nose.”

Although the two-hour surgery went as planned, Shoemaker had major concerns about Pearl’s recovery from the operation. Because she was nursing her foal, he was concerned that Pearl’s immune system would be weakened. He also knew that she would be more susceptible to infection because of the bacteria in the air that passes in and out of the nasal passage and because of the diminished blood supply to the stretched tissue spanning the large hole. Just the movement caused by her breathing would put additional strain on the reconstructed tissue.

The surgeon’s fears were realized when Pearl developed an infection that stopped the patch from holding. Although Shoemaker has offered to donate the follow-up surgery, Fyfe and the other members of the rescue group are questioning whether or not to proceed.

“She’s very happy now,” says Fyfe who still houses Pearl at her stable. “If I could have a crystal ball and see that the surgery is going to be successful, then it would be worth putting her through the pain. It’s a dilemma in terms of the horse’s mental state.”

Although unsure of their next step, Fyfe is grateful for all the work that Shoemaker has done with Pearl. “It’s been very kind of him to donate his time and his expertise. I think that he is a person who really cares about an animal and not just the financial gains. It comes from the heart.”

Shoemaker and his colleagues at Delaney Veterinary Services plan to continue their involvement with the Rescue 100 Horses Foundation. “We absolutely support the foundation. They’re a straight-up organization that helps a lot of horses,” says Shoemaker. “You see these animals that are brought in as rescue cases and a lot of them get adopted out and people actually get to enjoy them. It gives those horses a second chance.”


Drs. Ryan Shoemaker and Lana Delaney with Pearl. Photo: John Lucas, Edmonton Journal.

He believes that it’s important for private practices to step up and help out any organizations that benefit animals. While going to school and then working at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Medical Centre, Shoemaker saw that the staff there routinely donated their services.

“Private practices outside the college can certainly help out a lot more too,” says Shoemaker, who graduated from the WCVM in 2000 and completed a large animal surgery residency at the college in 2005. “When I left the college, I never thought that I’d be doing a case like Pearl, but certainly we’re happy that we did, and we’d do it again.”

Quick Q: What’s the Rescue 100 Foundation? The foundation was established in 2008 when a hundred horses were seized by the Alberta SPCA. Susan Fyfe, owner of Keno Hills Stable, offered to house and care for the animals. Fyfe, along with a group of dedicated volunteers, set up the foundation to gather donations of cash, supplies and services as well as to provide care and find new homes for the horses.

Today the society works with the SPCA and continues to rehabilitate and find new homes for abused horses while offering education programs to promote the proper care of animals and advocating for laws to protect animals from abuse. Visit for more information and to read more about Pearl.

Lynne Gunville is a freelance writer and editor whose career includes 25 years of teaching English and communications to adults. She and her husband live at Candle Lake, Sask.


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