Professor Ducharme has both a clinical and personal passion for horse medicine.

Courtesy of Normand Ducharme

Professor Ducharme has both a clinical and personal passion for horse medicine.

April 16, 2018

Rooting for the Horses: A Conversation with Professor Ducharme

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Imagine running without being able to breathe. Sounds pretty terrible, right? Unfortunately, this is the reality that many horses suffer through. Seeking to solve this problem, Prof. Normand G. Ducharme, clinical sciences, has revitalized the equine industry with his work on respiratory illnesses in horses.

Ducharme got involved with horse medicine when the success rate for helping race horses was low. “There was a fair amount of complication. Low success, high morbidity rate – we kept asking ourselves how we could do better,” Ducharme said as he reflected on some of the challenges he encountered early in his career.

Horse medicine is particularly difficult because there are high stakes involved. For example, because there are high morbidity rates associated with horse medicine, doctors must be very attentive to the individual horse’s needs in order to prevent death.

Ducharme noted that when the horses can’t breathe, “there is little we can physiologically do.” Many of Ducharme’s efforts have therefore been for the temporary improvement of horse respiratory systems. However, there are significant differences in respiratory illnesses, and therefore, Ducharme’s team has been tasked with responding to specific cases, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.

There is a lot of clinical demand for Ducharme’s work. The professor was hopeful for the future of horse medicine, since “the equine industry uses horses as models for human disease as well.” Since horses and humans are both mammals, there are similarities in respiratory patterns between the two animals. Collecting data from all mammalian studies, therefore, is important to understand more about the human body and subsequently prevent human illness.

However, Ducharme is not motivated by clinical demand alone. He is also motivated by the personal obligation he feels to help horses that are suffering. “How can we do a better service?” was one of the questions Ducharme found himself asking, especially in the early stages of his research. This question continues to permeate his research, though, especially as new cases of horse illness surface.

Ducharme reflects on his goals for the future of horse medicine, hoping that he can develop methods for permanent physiological changes, rather than temporary ones.

“More physiological changes will allow horses to be closer to what Mother Nature intended it to be,” Ducharme said. “Hopefully we can make that happen so horses can repair to be functional; when a horse can’t breathe, that is the end of their world.”

There is a level of empathy for these horses that Ducharme and his team must have. It is not easy to place oneself in the shoes of a completely different organism, and yet that is the mentality that has allowed Ducharme be so successful.

But mentality without support can only do so much. Ducharme praises Cornell for its internationally recognized and collaborative research environment.

“The Cornell brand gives you credibility,” Ducharme said.

After working with scientists in countries including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada, Ducharme has come to understand how global perspectives are needed for all research fields.

The scope of Ducharme’s team is not only geographically wide. The surgeon notes how faculty at Cornell have played an integral role in improving his work.

“Cooperation here is outstanding. Nothing could be done without a big team helping you,” Ducharme said. “There are so many smart people here – there is always someone smarter than you.”

The effects Ducharme and his team have had on horse medicine are undeniable. However, Ducharme is ready to take on new challenges, hoping to redefine the equine industry by seeking permanent medical solutions, rather than temporary.

His vision for the future advocates for more collaboration with people doing human medicine.

“It is always good to collaborate with people working on human medicine. They can learn from us as well,” Ducharme said.