Helping save horses' sight
UF animal eye surgeon performs 100th transplant
Published: Saturday, January 10, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 9, 2004 at 11:50 p.m.
Dennis Brooks performed his 100th cornea transplant Friday morning, but the patient won't be able to thank Brooks for saving his eyesight.
Horses are like that.
"I knew the surgery was going to go well," said Gainesville resident Kelly Spearman, a UF animal science graduate student and the owner of the patient, a 3-year-old thoroughbred named Togey. "It's the recovery I'm worried about. The scary part is still to come."
But, she said she is not too worried: Brooks, an animal eye surgeon, has been transplanting horses' corneas for over a decade, with a 90 percent success rate.
Spearman watched from an observation room as Brooks deftly replaced the infected cornea, the clear covering on the front of Togey's eye.
The 45-minute procedure was performed at UF's world-class Large Animal Hospital, which features modern operating rooms and jumbo-sized equipment, like huge gurneys designed to handle thousand-pound patients and special cranes to lift them onto the operating table. The operation costs about $2,500.
While he works on enormous patients, the tools Brooks uses for the actual operation are so tiny he needs a microscope to see what he is doing.
"It's pretty amazing," Spearman said as Togey was wheeled out of the operating room - a task that required four doctors, pushing with all their strength.
Though the operation was a success, Togey still faces a dangerous recovery, beginning when he wakes up from anesthesia in a specially designed padded room.
"Waking the horses up is an art," Brooks said - they are huge creatures with relatively thin legs, and their first instinct when confused or disoriented is to run away, potentially falling down or crashing into a wall.
Once Togey is out of the hospital, he will have to be watched carefully to make sure he doesn't break the stitches or become reinfected.
Spearman first brought Togey to the hospital about a month ago, when his right eye swelled up and turned yellow.
"He looked like he was wearing a Halloween mask," she said.
Brooks determined that the horse had developed a "Mickey Mouse-shaped" fungal infection in his eye, which would be difficult to treat with medicine.
"If we don't cut this out, he's going to lose his sight," Brooks said before the operation, pointing to a pea-sized pink splotch on Togey's huge, sedated eye. "And he's only 3 years old."
Brooks, a 13-year veteran of UF's veterinary ophthalmology department, has been a pioneer in adapting the cornea transplant procedure for horses, which often contract dangerous fungal infections in humid climates like Florida's.
Microsurgery techniques made human cornea transplants possible in the 1950s, but, like other medical advances, took decades to make their way into the veterinary world.
Brooks performed some of the first horse transplants at the University of Tennessee in the late 1980s before moving to UF, which opened its state-of-the-art, $10 million Large Animal Hospital in 1994. Though it is the most common transplant for humans - with over 40,000 performed every year - the cornea operation still requires special, customized tools. To modify them for use on horses, Brooks worked with doctors in Oregon and the Netherlands who build the human versions.
His work has since attracted more international attention: pointing out French, Swedish, and Costa Rican colleagues outside the operating room, Brooks said: "We're kind of the United Nations of ophthalmology."
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