DOUGLASSVILLE, Pa. – To hear her owner talk, Suki has always been a bit of a diva. And that hasn't changed even after the massive barn fire that burned the chestnut mare over two-thirds of her body.
Suki's feisty, stubborn spirit shined through all the ointment slathered on her tender skin during seven weeks in an equine intensive care unit. The horse stayed her spunky self despite painful skin grafts and the discomfort of daily wound care.
Her recovery over the past two years has been so remarkable that, while she cannot be ridden anymore, owner Frances Wade-Whittaker thinks Suki has found a new mission: working as a therapy animal for human burn survivors.
It's a belief shared by some veterinarians and physical therapist Marcia Levinson, co-director of a summer camp for children scarred by fire.
"I think the kids could just identify with this animal, who is very much the same as they are," Levinson said. "Suki is a living metaphor for all that the kids have gone through."
Wade-Whittaker bought Suki, an Oldenburg mare, in 2003 and for years competed with her in dressage. That all ended one summer night in 2009 when a massive barn fire broke out at the farm where Suki boarded in Oley Township, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
The badly injured horse was found wandering in a nearby field, burns covering about two-thirds of her body and corneal ulcers temporarily blinding her. When Wade-Whittaker got the devastating news, her first question to the local veterinarian was: Does Suki need to be put down?
The doctor advised having the horse evaluated at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, where 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was treated after breaking down in the Preakness.
Suki's arrival is seared into the memory of Michelle Harris, an internal medicine resident at New Bolton. "It smelled like a fire was in the trailer," Harris recalled. "Her whole back was black."
But Harris was hopeful. The mare was standing tall and seemed surprisingly alert; her attitude "was fairly bright," she had an appetite and didn't show any major orthopedic injuries. In short, Harris said, Suki had a will to survive.
"That's a horse that you say (to the owner), 'If you're willing to let us try to treat her, I think we can give it a shot,'" Harris said.
Suki spent seven weeks at New Bolton at a total cost of about $18,000. Harris attributed her healing to copious amounts of silver sulfadiazine, which is also used to treat human burns, and painkillers that helped maintain her appetite. Burn patients need huge amounts of calories to regenerate skin, Harris said.
Though some in the horse community have pilloried Wade-Whittaker for not euthanizing the mare, she said it seemed clear from her first visit to the equine ICU — when she called Suki's name and the mare nickered back — that the horse was a fighter.
"You could see that personality the entire time," Wade-Whittaker said. "That's how I knew I did the right thing."
In the two years since, Wade-Whittaker, a 40-something project manager in the pharmaceutical industry, estimates she's spent up to $15,000 on follow-up care. She is grateful for the pro bono skin graft surgery Suki received on a small patch of her back at the equestrian center at Centenary College in Long Valley, N.J.
Centenary vet Michael Fugaro, who has known Wade-Whittaker for years, said treating Suki was a good learning opportunity for students at the school. Equine skin grafts are rare, partly because most horses burned that badly don't survive, he said.
"I don't believe all horses would have been able to endure what Suki went through," said Fugaro. "I think they would have given up."
Now living on a farm in Douglassville, near Reading, Suki still requires daily care of her now darkened skin. But her chestnut coat is growing back, she enjoys being exercised and gets to roam in pastures after the sun sets.
"She's a very happy, normal horse," Wade-Whittaker said.
One of her caretakers is Lori Ferdock, a veterinarian well-versed in such injuries after her young son suffered severe burns in a science experiment. Ferdock has been working to connect Suki with the Lehigh Valley Burn Center, which runs a support group, and Camp Susquehanna, for children injured by fires.
Unfortunately, Suki's planned visit to the camp at Millersville University last month fell through when she refused to get on the trailer. Marcia Levinson, the camp co-director, was disappointed but understanding; she hopes to bring the campers to Suki next year.
But burn survivor Bill Wilson, 65, a member of the Lehigh Valley support group, was able to visit the horse recently. Wilson, who lost most of his fingers in a 2007 cooking fire in his camper in Bechtelsville, brought carrots and apple slices and held them out in his damaged hands.
Suki hesitated a moment before taking the offering, he said.
"Her ears kind of perked up as if to say, 'I don't feel a full hand here,'" said Wilson. "At that moment, I was almost drawn to tears ... I felt that she knew that I had been injured, too."
Working with Suki has also been therapeutic for Ferdock as a caregiver. The mare clearly welcomed the routine exfoliation, moisturizing and scar care, and it was gratifying to see her skin improve, Ferdock said.
"She would turn around in her stall and put her itchiest parts right in front of me to coax me to massage there next," said Ferdock. "There was and still is an incredible honesty and purity in her reactions."
Wade-Whittaker plans to write a children's book and a memoir about Suki's journey, and eventually plans to breed the 11-year-old horse. And while the horse's hide is too delicate to bear a saddle, she has a good life and a new purpose, her owner said.
"I think she can make a difference," Wade-Whittaker said. "So many people have given so much, and if we can do something to give back and to help, I think that's really important."
Suki's Facebook page: http://on.fb.me/iNjVCr
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