Tom's Story

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This is a poignant story about Tom, a draft horse who had lymphedema, and the people who worked to save him. It’s about the legacy and the hoof prints he left behind to raise awareness concerning the plight of equine lymphedema. It is our dream that Tom will inspire hope in owners and promote a higher standard of living and functionality to the horse that has been inflicted with this chronic, progressive disease.

In mid-December 2009, we were contacted by an equine massage therapist at Blue Star Equiculture and Horse Sanctuary (a draft horse rescue operation) in Palmer, Massachusetts. They had a draft horse, Tom, who had equine lymphedema.

Tom had worked for many years as a carriage horse in Philadelphia. He had been working—despite his condition —up until May 2009, when Blue Star offered him a home as he was no longer able to perform his duty as a carriage horse. Tom’s left hind leg was enormous, and he had difficulty moving around. The condition was quite painful as the skin is stretched so tight that it begins to crack and form crusty lesions that ooze and invite infection. Like many owners of horses with lymphedema, Blue Star considered euthanizing Tom because there was no known cure or treatment for this debilitating disease of the lymph system.

We arrived on Sat. Jan 9, 2010, to find the entire staff from Blue Star on-site, plus volunteers, an equine massage therapist and an equine chiropractor. It was one of the coldest days of the year, with temperatures near zero degrees. Seeing Tom from a distance, it was clear he was quite compromised. He had no flexion in his fetlock and he was very uncomfortable.

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Tom was brought up to the barn where we immediately began therapy. First he received the Layman’s Grooming Technique to stimulate the lymphatic system, followed by manual lymph drainage massage. During the grooming and most of the massage, he constantly fidgeted to let us know he didn’t really want to be there. However, once the massage began on his affected limb, he stood perfectly still as if he knew we were helping him. His poor leg felt like cement.

Following the massage, his leg was wrapped according to a new protocol. It took two people to wrap his leg as the diameter was 37 inches. If the leg was not wrapped in a certain manner, and with specific material, further damage to the extremity could result. There is an art and skill in lymphedema wrapping that has developed over time. At about 4 pm, the day’s treatment was complete. The next morning would reveal whether our efforts had paid off!

By 7 a.m. Sunday morning, the bandages fell several inches, which meant the lymph fluid was leaving his body (via urination). He was wrapped again, and for the first time since his arrival in May 2009, his leg appeared to improve. In about 14 hours, his leg inflammation was reduced by 25%!

With continued grooming, massage and wrapping we were hopeful his leg would continue to improve. The limb would never be completely normal, but he could have a good quality of life and usefulness. With an extremity this large, we knew it would take some time to maximize the benefits of treatment.

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Tom had a host of infections on his leg due to the lymphedema, and they were improved as well. For the first time in many months Tom frolicked around the field when he was turned out! He had flexion restored in both his hoof and fetlock. One of the volunteers commented that he looked very much relieved. Every morning and night the staff wrapped and bandaged his leg and progress continued. We were so hopeful we ordered a customized compression garment from Germany as an adjuvant.

Amy Shumway, one of the volunteers, did an outstanding job and must be recognized for her dedication and commitment to Tom. She took responsibility for his care and even established a liver detox program and provided him with nutritional support including a probiotics regimen. By May 2010, Tom had lost a lot of weight, and it became apparent he had a magnitude of other health issues beyond the lymphedema. A compromised immune system is an opportunistic environment for other pathogens. Blue Star made the difficult decision to euthanize Tom on Monday, July 12, 2010.

We requested a hoof print from Tom, which will accompany us on our travels as a reminder of Tom’s strength and courage in battling this debilitating and painful disease. Tom’s spirit will live on in our hearts and minds to inspire faith, hope, love and healing. He was surrounded by people who loved him and helped him cross over. Blue Star created a memorial of Tom’s life. Please visit and witness this beautiful tribute to this gentle giant. Tom doesn’t know it, but he has started a legacy. Together, Tom and the Holistic Equine Academy of Lymphedema will raise awareness of the plight of equine lymphedema in the U.S. We hope by sharing his story, it will give hope to horse owners who have an equine companion who is inflicted with this disfiguring and painful condition.

We bring Tom’s story to you with deep gratitude and appreciation to Pam Richenback and Christina Hansen, founders of Blue Star; Blue Star staff Justin, Angie, and Zoey; and volunteers Amy, Jo Bunny, and Sally for making Tom’s life more comfortable; and for all who participated in making his transition from this world to the next. Thanks also to Tom, for all of the future healing he will inspire.