Operation Orangutan

Iris, a teen-age orangutan at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, DC, has been the object of concerted efforts by vets to ease her pain. She has been under the weather for some time in spite of the dedicated care by the veterinary staff who have been unable to determine why this normally playful youngster has been suffering from occasional abdominal pain as well as noticeable weight loss.

Enter the cavalry in the guise of two surgeons from nearby Georgetown University Hospital. Dr. Stanley Benjamin, Georgetown's chief of gastroenterology, did the initial examination. He was struck by the similarity of orang internal organs to our own. "You cannot tell the difference," he said. Since no significant problems were uncovered and the episodic pain continued, it fell to Dr. Craig Winkel, chief of obstetrics, to weigh in. Unusual situations are not unusual to Dr. Winkel, who ushered the Qahtani septuplets into the world. Fortunately, he did not find signs of the endometriosis (a very painful condition) he feared when he performed a laparoscopic examination. There was, however, some discoloration in the liver and tests results will be available soon. Since Iris leads a pretty controlled existence in the Great Ape House, cirrhosis can safely be ruled out.

This has been a two-way street between the two institutions. Susan Murray, Head Veterinarian, and her staff were impressed by the careful attention to Iris' condition Drs. Winkel and Benjamin brought to their examinations. The two surgeons, on the other hand, were intrigued by the ingenuity of the vets and the post-operative care. The incisions were sewn with sutures below the skin so Iris could not pull them out. Decoy sutures were scattered around her torso so she could yank them out when feeling bored or frolicsome without causing damage. Most imaginative of all, they painted her nails blue. What teenaged girl waking with blue nails would not be enchanted enough to ignore some unaccustomed aches and pains? Most impressive was getting Iris to drink a gallon of pre-op medication-which is unpleasant to put it mildly. Dr. Murray summed it all up, "She is doing great. It's amazing how quickly animals recuperate."

CAPTION: Iris, who lives at the National Zoo, has been suffering from mysterious weight loss and abdominal pain.  Bill O'Leary, 2001, The Washington Post, reprinted with permission

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