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Zoo Story: Treating an Orangutan as a Labor of Love

Lawrence Hergott, MD, director of outpatient clinical services for the University of Colorado Hospital’s Cardiac & Vascular Center, was recently among a dozen providers at the Denver Zoo’s animal hospital circling a 162-pound, 21-year-old female orangutan named Nias, as she slumbered under the influence of general anesthesia.

Nias under anesthesia. Providers carefully monitor her airway
during the exam to ensure her safety.

The provider team filled a variety of roles – Hergott’s was to conduct a cardiology exam, including an EKG to test the animal’s heart rhythms – but they were united in one goal: to help ensure the safety of an endangered species.

Precious data. Hergott and the zoo will submit information from the most recent examination to a national registry on primates that has gathered data from more than 100 conducted on great apes nationwide since 2006. Hergott says the registry is an invaluable resource for those dedicated to preserving the species.

“We want to identify behaviors that indicate an animal is getting sick or whether we should worry about the thickness of the heart muscle, for example,” Hergott notes. “It’s good preventive medicine.”

The apes, whose hearts are virtually identical to those of humans, can suffer from potentially fatal cardiac problems, Hergott remarks. “In captivity they die of the same diseases humans do, such as heart failure, which makes them swell up with fluids." They are treated with the same drugs used on humans, he adds.

Extensive exam. A team of specialists recruited from UCH and Exempla Lutheran Medical Center conducted an extensive two-hour exam that included checking Nias's vital signs, blood pressure, heart rate and blood oxygen levels, listening to her lungs, abdomen and heart, monitoring her blood flow, taking an echocardiogram of her heart and examining her teeth.

 

Hergott supervises placement of electrodes for the EKG.

The room hummed with activity from the moment Nias arrived by ambulance and was brought in on a stretcher and laid on the examination table. Anesthesiologists carefully monitored her breathing throughout the examination.

“It’s absolutely critical to protect the airway of an orangutan,” Hergott notes. “They have a big air sac under their chin that can pinch off the airway, which is relatively small.”

Getting in rhythm. Getting an EKG presented challenges too. One of them was anatomical.

"You can’t use a conventional placement of electrodes,” says Mason Madrid, UCH Ancillary Health Technician coordinator who, along with Cardiac & Vascular Center nurse practitioner Patrice Spurck, RN, MS, ANP, assisted Hergott. “It’s a little bit tougher because of the configuration of the chest, and their heart is bigger and situated differently than a human's."

The thick hair covering Nias’s body made it hard to attach the electrodes that would convey signals from the heart. The answer? Electric shavers. “We were having trouble getting signals, but we didn’t want to leave big bare spots on her body,” Madrid says. After a few careful trims, he adds, the team was able to make good contacts that produced “beautiful signals."

Nias in good health. The team conducted an echocardiogram, which showed Nias's heart was pumping well. The dental team also pronounced her in good oral health. "Just a few chips," said dentist Pete Emily. "Cleanest primate mouth I've seen in a long time, better than a lot of human ones," he added to general laughter.

Hergott's examination of Nias, the twelfth time he's taken part in an exam of a great ape, produced familiar feelings.

“I thought it was routine at first,” he said. “But when they wheeled [Nias] in, I got into it and saw her totally as an individual. It was energizing and stimulating.

"It’s such a privilege to do this,” he added. “If there’s a pause in the work, you think about the wonder of being in the presence of this animal and being responsible for her welfare.”


This page is adapted from a story that appeared in the UCH Insider, the hospital's candid e-newsletter. The Insider, which is published biweekly, is available to people outside the hospital via a free e-mail subscription. Tyler Smith (tyler.smith@uch.edu) is managing editor of the Insider.

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