When major advances in medical science are being tested, they frequently start on animals—specifically, apes that share the vast majority of their DNA with humans. So when the Houston Zoo’s 42-year-old orangutan, Cheyenne, fell ill, two doctors from the area stepped up to return the favor.
Dr. Venkata Bandi, a critical care specialist at Ben Taub Intensive Care Unit, and Dr. Laurie Swaim, Chief of Gynecology at Texas Children’s Hospital Pavilion for Women, volunteered after vets from the Houston Zoo reached out for help. As the Houston Chronicle reports, stepping up was an immediate priority for Dr. Swaim:
“Animals give us so much without even realizing what they do,” said Dr. Swaim, “If there is a new drug, it’s experimented on animals, so if there’s some little modicum of something I can do to help them (I want to help).” she said.
Human doctors very rarely treat animals for a few reasons—among them is that what works when dealing with human patients doesn’t always work the same way with apes. Treating an orangutan proved challenging for Doctors Swaim and Bandi: for example, treatments like dialysis, which require people not to touch tubes inserted into their bodies, are impossible for an ape, who isn’t capable of understanding instructions. The Chronicle reports that figuring out how to treat Cheyenne properly was a process they entered into cautiously.
The team worked around the clock and devised a way to keep Cheyenne lightly sedated so a smaller I/V could be kept in. A constantly monitored stream of antibiotics and fluids was administered.
“We tried to walk a tight-rope between giving too much fluids and giving enough, somewhere around day seven or eight, she start to turn around,” said Dr. Bandi.
In total Cheyenne spent 11 days on the I/V and survived using all the experience of the zoo staff and human doctors combined, plus information from another zoo which had successfully treated a gorilla in a similar way.
Cheyenne is back at the zoo and back on exhibit now, where she lives with her adopted daughter Aurora. Ultimately, all’s well that ends well here—thanks to an unconventional medical team pulling together for the ape.