Dr. George Bagby, MD, an orthopedic surgeon from Spokane, Wash., and inventor of the “Bagby Bone Basket” or “Seattle Slew Basket” – made famous when it was implanted into the neck of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew to prolong his life – died on Dec. 12 at the age of 93.
Bagby and equine surgeons Dr. Pamela (Wagner) vonMatthiessen and Dr. Barrie Grant pioneered the surgery in the late 1970s along with other members of the Washington State University veterinary staff. Bagby would soon collaborate with spine surgeon Dr. Stephen Kuslich of the Mayo Clinic and convert the technique for human use in lower back surgery. Today the BAK implant is commonly used in surgery on people with degenerative discs and spines.
Bagby and Grant performed the life-saving surgery on Seattle Slew after the champion racehorse-turned champion stallion was diagnosed in 2000 with wobbler syndrome, a degenerative disease that causes compression of the spinal cord through stenosis (narrowing) of the spinal canal.
The surgery involves screwing a threaded titanium implant that has many small holes in the walls into a horse's spine. Contained within the basket is bone graft that is harvested from the patient during the drilling and tapping process. When surgically implanted between two vertebrae, the bone begins to grow through the walls of the basket to eventually form dense bone, healthy bone that prevents excessive movement of the cervical vertebra that puts pressure on the spinal cord.
The surgery relieved Seattle Slew's discomfort and allowed him to breed to a book of 60 mares the following year.
“George Bagby's innovative approach to treating Seattle Slew's condition certainly extended his life, and as importantly, his comfort,” said Dan Rosenberg, who was general manager of Three Chimneys Farm near Midway, Ky., during Seattle Slew's stallion career. “George's quiet confidence, surgical skills and great communication skills helped us get through a very difficult time.”
“Dr. Bagby's invention not only saved Seattle Slew's life, it improved the quality of his life. Slew lived for two more years after his initial surgery, showing us his tremendous strength and spirit to overcome obstacles,” added Karen and Mickey Taylor, who owned Seattle Slew as both a racehorse and as a stallion. “For that and the extra time we were given with Slew, we will always owe Dr. Bagby our gratitude.”
Bagby always had an affinity for horses. He was born in Waco, Texas, but soon moved to Minnesota. He accompanied his stepfather – a veterinarian – on calls to area farms. While he loved working with animals, he felt the call of duty when Germany invaded Poland.
“Although I was interested in the veterinary field, thoughts of World War II changed me into thinking that caring for humans would be of greater use to the world,” he once told a writer for Orthopedics This Week.
After serving as a surgeon in Korea, Bagby carried that sense of duty with him throughout his life. In addition to being a renowned orthopedic surgeon and inventor (in addition to the Bagby Bone Basket, he invented Wire Rod Triangulation as a more cost-effective way for surgeons to fix fractures) and the Bagby Self Compression plate for treating long bone fractures.
He was also keenly focused on improving medical care in third-world countries. His Bagby Family Endowment Fund provided funding for the Nalta Hospital in Bangladesh, as well as to Mobility Outreach International in Seattle, Wash., which partnered with the hospital to provide prosthetic and orthopedic care.
“While George may best be remembered for his inventions and his humanitarian support of Bangladesh, he was one of the pioneers in the concept of “One Medicine,' which promotes combining the observations and knowledge of medical conditions of humans and animals for the benefit of both,” said Dr. Barrie Grant, DVM, longtime friend of Bagby and a colleague who performed surgeries alongside him on many horses, including Seattle Slew. Grant is renowned worldwide for his surgical prowess with horses suffering from wobbler syndrome.
“The development of the Bagby Basket, the BAK cage and the Seattle Slew implant is a tribute to this philosophy,” added Grant. “It was such a pleasure to watch George in surgery, as he had such a light, kind touch handling the tissues.”
Services for Dr. George Bagby will he held Jan. 6 at 2:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Spokane in Spokane, Wash. In lieu of flowers, a donation may be made to Mobility Outreach International (formally known as the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation) at mobilityoi.org or at 192 Nickerson Street, #201, Seattle, WA 98109.
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