Baylor College of Medicine News

Houston Zoo, Baylor team up for special orangutan patient

Baylor doctors, in green, assist Houston Zoo veterinarians during surgery. Photo courtesy of the Houston Zoo.

Baylor College of Medicine doctors train for a variety of patients and ailments, but one patient this past summer was something they never expected. The Houston Zoo, just a block away from the Baylor campus, sought advice and treatment concerning its 42-year-old orangutan, Cheyenne.

Her health had been declining and she began to show decreased activity and was not eating or drinking well. After an analysis of blood samples, the veterinary team found evidence of immature white blood cells indicating Cheyenne was experiencing some sort of inflammation or infection, which could be very serious. Based on her condition and lab results, it became obvious that she would need extended supportive care.  

They turned to Dr. Laurie Swaim, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor and a physician with Texas Children’s Hospital Pavilion for Women, for help. Swaim has had a professional relationship with the zoo for a while and has consulted on past cases, but in this case, she helped perform exploratory surgery.

Dr. Creighton Edwards, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor and also a physician with Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women, received a call from Swaim asking for assistance during a surgery. He asked when and where, and three hours later he, along with his first year resident Dr. Bailey Wilson, were scrubbing in at the zoo’s facilities.

They did an exploratory abdominal surgery on Cheyenne to investigate a mass previously identified on an X-ray. Although the surgery did not show any abnormalities in her abdomen, it was clear that Cheyenne needed a more stable intravenous line to help deliver fluids and medication. A neonatal team of infusion specialists from Texas Children’s was called in to assist with the insertion of an IV into a vein in Cheyenne’s ankle.

Through this lifeline, she received antibiotics, fluids and a sedative that kept her from being too active, while ensconced in a cushioned bed inside her recovery bedroom in the orangutan night-house.

The zoo’s veterinarians knew that she had a condition that was compromising her kidneys and liver. When additional tests didn’t identify a specific cause, the zoo engaged Ben Taub intensive care specialist Dr. Venkata Bandi, professor of medicine at Baylor and critical care specialist at Harris Health’s Ben Taub Hospital, 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.

Over the next several weeks, the primate staff watched her carefully and took turns staying overnight with her making sure that her IV line was running properly and she was resting comfortably. Every three days, zoo clinicians performed additional blood tests to monitor her kidney values and electrolytes. Intravenous treatments were adjusted based on her lab results and vital input from Bandi. 

Today, Cheyenne’s recovery continues, and she has been reunited with her adoptive “child” Aurora. The keeper team continues to work on building up her strength, and she has recently begun spending time outside in the Wortham World of Primates orangutan habitat.

Baylor is no stranger to working with the Houston Zoo. In 2009 the two began work studying EEHV (elephant endotheliotropic herpes), which is a silent killer of elephants across the globe. Since then, a rapid diagnostic test has been developed to help with early detection. Early diagnosis is an important step because EEHV does not show symptoms until it is too late.

This partnership now includes Johns Hopkins University and the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory at the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park and also the BCM Human Genome Sequencing Center. This research not only supports conservations efforts across the globe but also helps researchers understand certain aspects of the herpes virus that affects humans.

Written in collaboration with the Houston Zoo.