Gorilla Surgery

Photo courtesy of Ryan Hawk, Woodland Park Zoo

When does a physician treat a gorilla? When the gorilla needs life-saving sinus surgery. At least, that’s what happened on Aug. 25, 2014. Alumnus Greg E. Davis, M.D. ’00, MPH, Res. ’03, director of rhinology and endoscopic skull-base surgery at UW Medicine, performed a three-hour surgery on Vip, a 425-pound, silverback gorilla at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

UW Medicine: How did you hear about this case?
Greg Davis: It was Al Hillel [UW professor of otolaryngology] who first called me. He said, “Greg, I have an interesting consult for you. But we’re going to have to go off-site.” When he told me we were going to Woodland Park Zoo, I was thrilled. My undergraduate degree is in zoology, and my wife and I regularly took our kids to the zoo.

Do physicians often operate on animals as well as humans?
GD: It’s not uncommon. For example, sometimes the zoo calls on our Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology to help with complex deliveries. Zoo veterinarians have extensive training with large animals, but they don’t have the sub-specialty training that we do. There are not any endoscopic sinus surgeons for gorillas as far as we know. Vip’s infection was serious and had started to erode his skull; he wasn’t going to improve without this surgery.

How similar is sinus surgery across species?
GD: As far as we knew, this kind of sinus surgery had never been done on a gorilla. We looked at Vip’s CT scan to better understand the dimensions of gorilla sinuses. We used image navigation, a high-tech process that allows us to track the tip of our instrument inside a patient’s head during surgery. Medtronic transported the necessary equipment to the zoo and helped set it up. KARL STORZ Endoscopy-America provided other equipment and sinus surgery instruments.

What was it like operating on a gorilla?
GD: He’s 425 pounds — he’s a linebacker of a specimen! I had to hunch over to reach his nose throughout the surgery. His smell was impressive; it permeated the mask, my clothes. It was interesting, too, that Vip is such an important figure to his family and to so many people. Clearly he is important to not just the female gorillas that he lives with, but also the gorilla keepers and the zoo veterinarians. It was incredible to see their concern. They truly treat gorillas as family members.

How is Vip doing?
GD: After surgery, Vip initially did well, but then the infection spread to his face. Dr. Darin Collins, Woodland Park Zoo’s director of animal health, reassured me that gorillas have strong immune systems. Sure enough, it healed with time. His recovery has been outstanding. Working with veterinarians was fantastic; they’re incredibly caring and attentive healthcare providers. It was a privilege to be part of such a stellar team.

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