For many, Christmas is a time to count your blessings, appreciate the love of family and friends and reach out to others.

For a young and growing Stevensville, Maryland family, it will also be a time to remember how the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and the generosity of the human spirit combined to keep a very special boy and his dog together.

Mr. and Mrs. David Furst noticed their son Jackson was encountering some challenges with motor function, and eventually, speech, as an infant. Jackson was eventually diagnosed with a form of cerebral palsy and apraxia and the Fursts began the process of adapting their lifestyle to meet Jackson’s special needs.

About ten months ago, the Fursts adopted a year-old chocolate Labrador retriever they named “Wonka” from owners who had surrendered it because they said they could no longer care for the dog.

Wonka and Jackson formed a special bond, according to Jackson’s father. “Jackson would wake up and say, ‘Where’s Wonka’,” recalled Furst. The natural and therapeutic benefits of the relationship between Jackson and Wonka were powerful and clear.

But soon, the Furst’s noticed that Wonka was not moving well and seemed to be in pain. Workup at a nearby veterinary practice determined that Wonka was suffering from severe hip dysplasia, an orthopedic disorder that afflicts many large breed dogs. While they thought they were adopting a healthy animal that could become a special friend for Jackson, they had in fact adopted an animal with a pre-existing condition that would cost thousands of dollars to surgically improve.

“Jack has had an extremely difficult time relating and interacting with his peers due to his speech and developmental delays, but with Wonka, it's been unconditional love,” recalled Furst, who says the cost of care was beyond their capacity to address. “We knew we had to find a way to save Wonka once our son, who only spoke about five or ten words by the time he was two-and a half, began saying ‘Hi Wonka!’"

Knowing how important the dog was for Jackson’s development and well-being, Jackson’s mother, Susan Furst, began systematically contacting every veterinary surgical facility and Veterinary Teaching Hospital she could locate, asking if they could help. “My wife is tenacious, to say the least.” said David. “She’s crusaded for his cause.”

When the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital director Dr. Robert Martin learned of their plight, he responded.

After evaluation, Wonka’s hip dysplasia was diagnosed as severe subluxation. Martin determined that total hip replacement was the best course of action for Wonka. Financial limitations dictated that a second surgery, called a femoral head ostectomy, would serve to salvage the opposite hip. The surgeries would be extensive and require time and effort to manage the dog’s convalescence, but the prognosis was good.

In June 2006, a titanium cementless artificial hip joint was implanted in Wonka by a surgical team during a two-hour operation. Wonka recovered well from the procedure and spent the next several months convalescing in Annapolis with the Furst family.

On Thursday, Dec. 14, Wonka underwent his second major procedure at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. The femoral head ostectomy involves the surgical removal of the “ball” and neck portion situated on the proximal end of the femur that actually fits into the “socket” portion of the pelvis.

The procedure often works well because the muscles and ligaments in the area eventually strengthen enough to support the scar tissue formation and provide the animal with pain-free mobility, according to Dr. Martin, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) and the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP). In time, the dog will learn to favor the stronger, artificial hip joint. Wonka was discharged on Saturday, Dec. 16 and is recovering as expected.

“We obviously cannot offer total hip replacement very often for clients with limited resources, but this was a very special situation and we felt justified in helping,” said Martin. “We are fiscally responsible as a state institution, and are responsible for recovering costs involved in providing surgical services for our clients. But funding is occasionally available from charitable donations which gives us the flexibility to help out from time to time.”

Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine Director of Development Dr. Frank Pearsall says that several funds have been established over the years by people who wish to provide resources to provide veterinary care for animals whose owners cannot afford it, and for unusual circumstances. The funding cannot nearly address the enormous demand, Pearsall said, but it does provide the hospital administration with some discretion in some situations.

For the Furst family, it provided a life-enriching opportunity for a special young boy. “Susan and I have seen remarkable improvements in Jack's overall attitude and disposition since Wonka entered our lives,” said Furst, who added that Jackson is also responding very positively to hippotherapy (equine-assisted therapy), where patients are emotionally and occupationally treated through clinically assisted horse-back riding.

With a full recovery expected, the Furst family, which includes Jackson, three, Josie, two, and another child expected in February, can look forward to years of happiness with Wonka, who will be able to romp pain-free thanks to modern veterinary surgery and unknown philanthropists.

“God bless the faculty and the entire staff at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine,” wrote Furst in an email.

The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (VMRCVM) is a two-state, three-campus professional school operated by the land-grant universities of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and the University of Maryland at College Park. Its flagship facilities, based at Virginia Tech, include the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, which treats more than 40,000 animals annually. Other campuses include the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va., and the Avrum Gudelsky Veterinary Center at College Park, home of the Center for Government and Corporate Veterinary Medicine. The VMRCVM annually enrolls approximately 500 Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and graduate students, is a leading biomedical and clinical research center, and provides professional continuing education services for veterinarians practicing throughout the two states. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.