In the days of the Wild West if a horse broke its leg in short order it would be staring at the barrel of a cowboy's six-shooter. Not much has changed. Even today, in the technological twenty-first century, with all the modern advances in medicine a broken leg in a horse is often a mortal injury. There are lots of reasons for this but it boils down to the fact that horses have to stand on all four limbs. If one is broken and can't bare weight then it's not long before problems begin to develop in the other unbroken limbs. The bottom line is: broken bones heal too slowly for a horse to survive a fractured leg. Tragically, euthanasia remains the humane option.
But what if you could make broken bones heal fast, say in days instead of months? A lot of horses could be saved. This is the idea that grew into my second novel, HYPERION'S FRACTURE. Mark and Claire are asked to use their bone healing technology to save the life of a horse that breaks one of its legs in a racing accident. The horse also happens to be a favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. I don't want to give away too much. If you want to learn what happens you'll have to wait until the book launch sometime next spring.
Thoroughbreds at Washington State University, 1986
THE WASHINGTON STATE YEARS (1984-87)
I've been interested in horses for a long time. In 1984 I was still trying to figure out what to do with my life. I'd been married for a few years and had begun an academic career in the field of exercise physiology. I'd earned a Masters degree and began a doctoral program in biochemistry at Penn State. Things weren't going the way I'd envisioned. I wanted to study what was happening in skeletal muscle at the molecular level during exercise. Penn State had other ideas. They treated me great and I loved my year in State College but no one in the department was doing research in what I wanted to study. So I began looking around for other opportunities.
There are key moments in a person's life that determine the path of future endeavors. I had one of these in July of 1984. The renowned exercise physiologist Philip D. Gollnick gave me the opportunity to continue my doctoral studies in his laboratory. Dr. Gollnick, or Doc as he was known to all of his students, had done pioneering research in muscle fiber typing and his lab was an international center for those interested in skeletal muscle biochemical responses to exercise. Scientists from, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Canada, China, and Australia were visiting or performing cutting edge research there. It was a golden opportunity for me and I jumped at it.
Washington State University School of Veterinary Medicine, 1984
Dr. Gollnick was a graduate of Iowa State University but had built his career at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. That was where we were headed. At the time, my wife and I had no idea where Pullman, Washington was. For those of you who've been there you can imagine the shock when we drove through the Palouse, in August of 1984, wondering what in the world we'd gotten ourselves into. We thought we'd driven to the very end of the earth.
I didn't have much time to think about it though because Philip Gollnick didn't put up with idleness. In fact, there was more than one occasion in that first year when I thought a marine recruit at Parris Island probably had it better. The year before I arrived Doc had moved his laboratory into the School of Veterinary Medicine and was anxious to prove it had been a good decision. He was a taskmaster, always the first one in the lab each morning and the last to leave and he knew what everyone was doing all the time. If you weren't in class you'd better be working on your research experiments. There weren't many distractions in Pullman so I didn't mind.
Gollnick had teamed up with two extraordinary Australian equine veterinarians, David Hodgson and Warwick Bayly and together they developed a plan to study exercise physiology in the Thoroughbred horse. These were, after all, some of the best athletes on the planet. Gollnick, Bayly, and Hodgson had acquired a treadmill designed in Sweden for horses and had a half-mile racetrack along with a research laboratory and group of devoted graduate students doing the grunt work.
WSU equine racetrack, 1985
Warwick Bayly and Philip Gollnick, 1985
We had a stable of about a dozen Thoroughbreds. I was given the task of developing methods of measuring skeletal muscle metabolites such as lactic acid, creatine, glucose, and numerous others. We also measured respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, Vo2 max, cardiac output, heart rate, lactate threshold, muscle pH, and a host of other variables. We collected data with our subjects performing at various intensities of exercise by varying treadmill speed and inclination. Muscle biopsies were obtained from the gluteal muscle for metabolite analysis. I've had my soleus muscle biopsied by the great Swedish exercise physiologist, Bengt Saltin, and I can tell you it is relatively painless. Once the skin and fascia are anesthetized with a local anesthetic, obtaining the sample (about 2-4 grams) doesn't hurt. There are no nerve pain fibers in muscle tissue. The biopsies were immediately plunged into liquid nitrogen. After the exercise session I would take them to the lab for analysis.
Horse treadmill facility at WSU in 1985, David Hodgson on far left
Thoroughbred exercising on the treadmill, 1985. Dr. Jill McCutcheon on the left
The author operating a high performance liquid chromatograph, 1986
The years 1984-87 were exciting, fun, and productive. If you counted all of the scientific articles generated from the research done by the group during those three years I'll bet it would add up to somewhere between twenty or thirty publications. My dissertation was based on eight papers, several of which I was the lead author.
As I look back on my time spent with Doc and the incredible team of individuals I was privileged to work with I can say it was one of the most enjoyable periods of my life. Being around veterinarians such as David Hodgson and Warwick Bayly showed me what it was like to treat and care for patients. It was because of their influence I decided to apply to medical school. In July of 1987 I successfully defended my dissertation and was granted a Ph.D. from Washington State University. Less than a month later my wife and I once again packed up a rental truck and moved, this time to Baltimore, Maryland to begin medical school, but that's another story.