12/06/2013 4:20PM

Jay Hovdey: Horses lucky veterinarian has at least two lives

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Greg Ferraro was ready to pack it in. The ordeal already had lasted for months, as he slowly recovered from liver transplant operation he received at Louisville’s world renowned Jewish Hospital Transplant Center in the spring. Then, while recuperating at the home of his close friends Jon and Sarah Kelly back in California, infection set in and the transplanted organ began to fail. His doctors wanted to do a second transplant, but Ferraro didn’t like the odds.

“I was ready to say no,” Ferraro said. “When you already know something about medicine, you know how sick you are.”

What Ferraro knows about medicine has made him one of the most respected veterinary surgeons in the annals of the discipline. In 1998 he retired from private practice to become director of the Center for Equine Health at the University of California-Davis. In 2011 he was appointed associate director of the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at Davis, where took charge of the school’s Large Animal Clinic. To have lost his talents at the age of 67 would have left an unfillable void in the ongoing battle to improve the lives of horses everywhere, especially those creatures bred to be racehorses.

But Ferraro was also tired, discouraged, and in terrible pain. You do not mess with the liver without dire consequences. The idea of going through a second transplant procedure gave him little solace.

“I said this is a waste of time and money and everybody’s efforts,” Ferraro said. “I said just pull the plug, give me some more morphine, and I’ll see you later. My doctors and a few other people gathered around my bed and said, ‘Listen, pal, you’re going to go forward with this whether you want to or not.’”

Ferraro didn’t have the strength to resist.

“I said okay, but I told them they were pumping uphill,” Ferraro said. “I knew my chances were between slim and none. To be honest with you, I was just plain lucky to make it.”

Ferraro has made it, and then some. On Friday morning, reached in his office at the university, he was completing a miraculous first week back on a job that very few are qualified to do. Ferraro was asked if, during the darkest hours of his ongoing prognosis, the pretenders to his throne were circling. He laughed.

“They might have been, until they realized how difficult it was,” he said. “So I’m stuck with it.

“We’re in the planning stages of building a new, 21st century hospital,” Ferraro continued. “We’re also making changes in personnel, and in services we offer – a real transition period – and I was supposed to be the guy to guide that transition over the next two or three years.”

It would be a mistake to think of Ferraro’s position at Davis as strictly academic and administrative. His staff at the Large Animal Clinic spends much of their time with sleeves rolled up getting hands dirty in the practical application of what decades of their research has mined.

According to the university’s prospectus, Ferraro’s office oversees emergency, inpatient, and on-farm veterinary services for horses, food animals, camelids, and backyard livestock. He directs the hospital’s training program for veterinary students to develop clinical skills in equine and livestock surgery, medicine, reproduction, intensive care and other areas. Ferraro also supervises the residency program for veterinarians seeking to specialize in large animal or equine medicine.

It was only last January that Ferraro turned over his position as director of the Center for Equine Health to his former assistant there, Dr. Claudia Sonder, so that he could concentrate on the transitional challenges of the Large Animal Clinic. Then his liver failed, and failed again.

“If it hadn’t been for Jon Kelly getting me back to Jewish Hospital in Louisville, I wouldn’t have made it,” Ferraro said.

Ferraro was among the early pioneers applying arthroscopic surgical techniques to racehorse joint damage. He became known as surgeon to the stars, with a list of patients that could fill a wing of the Hall of Fame.

He also was among the first wave of veterinarians to identify exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in racehorses, studies that led to the use and legalization of diuretics such as Lasix on a regular basis. Ferraro broke ranks from most of his colleagues in a 1992 essay in the North American Review, called “The Corruption of Nobility (The Rise & Fall of Thoroughbred Racing in America),” in which he criticized the increasing use of prerace medications and worried that veterinarians had become economic facilitators rather than advocates of equine health. Six years later, Ferraro went to Davis.

“The reason I left the track and came here is that I could do more from this end,” Ferraro said at the time. “Regardless of anything else, the business can’t survive with the current attrition rate of horses. If you can figure out ways to avoid injury, ways they can be trained differently so they can’t get hurt, eventually we may end up helping more horses than I could have as a practicing vet.”

Now, Ferraro seems determined not to waste the good luck that got him home from Louisville and on the road to recovery.

“It was a long, hard struggle,” Ferraro said. “But I made it. I made it.”