Barbaro's Injury Provokes Deep Empathy, but Why?


May 22, 2006 — -- After Barbaro suffered his fateful injury on Saturday, ABC News correspondent Vicki Mabrey couldn't help but notice the dour mood in the grandstand.

"People cried, they gasped, they hugged those around them, they asked why it had to happen and if Barbaro would live," she said. "Count me in on all of the above."

Barbaro, this year's Kentucky Derby champion, entered the Preakness Stakes competition undefeated yet left with three shattered bones in his right leg. His health status is serious -- he may pull through, he may not.

Even though there's no doubt Barbaro is suffering, the massive media coverage the horse has received is intriguing. What makes Barbaro's story so compelling when there are millions of homeless pets -- not to mention people -- who are suffering too?

What it comes down to, experts say, is that even though Barbaro is a horse, his situation is easy to anthropomorphize -- in other words, we all can easily relate to his story. He was injured without warning, but those around him reacted quickly to save him. It was scary; it was heroic.

Why so gripping? As the events of Sept. 11, 2001, revealed so clearly, many fear that tragedy can strike at any moment. Barbaro's accident highlights the chaos we all fear. Moreover, he was struck down at the peak of his career. He won the first leg of the Triple Crown with everyone expecting him to win at the Preakness Stakes, yet disaster occurred.

"[It] brings home to people how precarious our existence and safety is," said Dr. Redford Williams, Duke University's psychiatry director.

Even though Barbaro's mishap is tragic, some also relate it to a common trend in America's health care system, a trend that is dependent on money. Barbaro got the special medical care he needed, because he was well cared for -- and insured heavily.

"Winners are the wealthy, the famous, and those lucky enough to capture the media's eye in their moment of need," said Dr. Mark Earnest, associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

Regardless, as one person noted, one would expect a greater concern for the health and access to health care of fellow human beings, not of a horse.

"When I first saw the headlines and the coverage on Barbaro, I thought, 'Where are our priorities?' This horse is probably getting better care than many Americans living in medically underserved communities," said Dr. Adam Aponte, medical director at the North General Diagnostic and Treatment Center in New York.

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