Doctors help save other type of primate at zoo

A trio of women's health specialists accustomed to tricky reproductive ailments and gynecological cancer recently were called in to perform surgery on a high-profile resident of the N.C. Zoo.

It took four hours for Dr. Fidel Vilea, an oncologist at Duke University Medical Center, and Drs. Sameh Tomah and Gerald Mulvaney of the N.C. Center for Reproductive Medicine in Cary to do a full hysterectomy on Donna, a western lowland gorilla.

At 40, Donna is the oldest of the three female gorillas at the zoo and, according to senior veterinarian Dr. Ryan De Voe, the one with the most personality.

More than a year ago, De Voe said, keepers noticed Donna was bleeding excessively during her menstrual periods. Ultrasounds revealed what at first appeared to be fibroid tumors.

Eventually, Donna was taken to the veterinary school at N.C. State University, where surgeons planned to remove her uterus. But when they went in to do the surgery, they found so many adhesions in the abdomen that they couldn't even get to the uterus.

Rather than risk injury to Donna's colon trying to remove the adhesions, doctors took biopsies and closed Donna back up. When tests showed there was a malignant tumor in the uterus, De Voe asked for help from Tomah, who brought in Mulvaney and Vilea.

It's not unusual to have medical doctors work on primates, De Voe said; anatomical similarities allow doctors to apply the same techniques they use on humans, which can be helpful in complex cases like Donna's.

In late August, the doctors brought their equipment and several nurses to the operating room at the veterinary hospital in the zoological park near Asheboro. There, they were able to remove the adhesions in Donna's abdomen, then took out her uterus and ovaries.

Donna, more stout than the typical female gorilla at about 160 pounds, never appeared to be in any pain from the condition, De Voe said, and recovered quickly from the procedure.

“She was a little under the weather the next day. After that she was fine,” De Voe said. She was back in her grassy natural-habitat style exhibit with the other gorillas in less than two weeks.