Houston Zoo, Texas Medical Center doctors team up to treat orangutan

By Samantha Ptashkin - Reporter, Erica Young - News Producer

HOUSTON - The oldest orangutan at the Houston Zoo is recovering after being treated by doctors at the Texas Medical Center.

In June, Cheyenne, 42, began to show decreased activity and a change in her eating habits. Since orangutans share 97 percent of their DNA with humans, zoo vets decided to consult doctors who treat people. 

"If you get past all the red hair and the distinctive throat patch on the males, they're very, very similar to a person," said Houston Zoo veterinarian Dr. Lauren Howard.

The first human doctors to assist were obstetrics and gynecology experts Dr. Laurie Swaim and Dr. Creighton Edwards. Both are professors at Baylor College of Medicine and leaders at Texas Children's Hospital Pavilion for Women.

The doctors and a medical intern did an exploratory abdominal surgery on Cheyenne to identify a mass previously identified on an X-ray.

The surgery did not show any abnormalities in her abdomen. But doctors decided it was clear Cheyenne needed a more stable intravenous line to help deliver fluids and medication. That's where a neonatal team of infusion specialists from Texas Children's Hospital came into the picture.

Those doctors inserted an IV into a vein in Cheyenne's ankle. Cheyenne was kept lightly sedated for her treatment and monitoring period, which lasted more than two weeks.

The zoo's veterinarians also had concerns about Cheyenne's kidneys and liver. When additional tests did not show anything, the zoo called upon Baylor College of Medicine professor and Ben Taub intensive care specialist Dr. Venkata Bandi, who agreed to consult on Cheyenne's case. After reviewing her lab results, he was confident that she was very ill but could recover with continued care.

The next phase of Cheyenne's recovery came from zoo workers. Over the next several weeks, the primate staff watched her carefully and took turns staying with her through the night. Every three days, zoo clinicians performed additional blood tests to monitor her kidney values and electrolytes.

Her keepers and the zoo's veterinarians were encouraged as each test showed slow but steady improvement.

Cheyenne is now back at the zoo and Dr. Howard says she is doing well. 

"She's eating, drinking, and pooping normally and she's spending time with her adoptive daughter who depends on her quite a bit," Dr. Howard said.

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