Detroit Zoo chimp gets chance at life thanks to Michigan Medicine surgeon4 min read
ANN ARBOR, MI – Dr. Marcus Jarboe used to think separating conjoined twins was the most unique thing he’s ever done as a pediatric surgeon.
But now, there’s competition for that title, Jarboe said. The director of minimally invasive surgery at Ann Arbor’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital performed an inguinal hernia surgery in 2020 on a Detroit Zoo chimpanzee named Zane.
The life-saving procedure is considered the first-ever of its kind on a chimpanzee, Michigan Medicine officials said. It involved a variety of medical disciplines and a little extra primate research to get it done right.
“As a surgeon, you want to be prepared, right? You want to know what’s going on before you get in there,” Jarboe said. “There’s unpredictability in operations, but you like to start out with some baseline knowledge.”
Zane was born in January 2020, but doctors noticed issues when female chimps would not pick him up. After five weeks, Dr. Ann Duncan, the zoo’s director of animal health, noticed the inguinal hernia, a bulge caused when tissue pushes through a weak spot in the groin muscle.
Without the equipment necessary to perform a surgery, she called on Jarboe.
“I thought a pediatric surgeon would be the best person for the job,” Duncan said.
Jarboe had to get up to speed on chimpanzee anatomy, so he borrowed a book from his veterinarian brother-in-law for some background. There was little on inguinal hernia, so Jarboe said he and fellow surgeon Dr. Ron Hirschl had to “kind of wing it.”
“Ron is very good and has seen a lot of things in his career,” he said. “So I asked him to come with when we did the operation, because I figured we might have to just kind of make it up as we go.”
Jarboe also called on two pediatric anesthesiologists Drs. Ashlee Holman and Anila Elliott to assist. Duncan’s team often consults with experts in human medicine for medical issues with the zoo’s animals, she said.
“As a zoo vet, we call on experts in human and animal medicine often to help us take the greatest care of our animals, from surgeons and enterologists to allergists and reproductive professionals,” Duncan said. “But working with Dr. Jarboe was a special treat. He was wonderful.”
Jarboe’s expertise also included his development of the “laparoscopic” technique, which uses ultrasound and a needle to limit the size of incision during surgeries on abdomens or pelvises. The surgery on Zane was a new wrinkle for this technique, because equipment needed to be transported to zoo’s operating room, Jarboe said.
“It’s a really nice operating room” he said, though it took time to adjust to machines meant for animals other than humans.
Another wrinkle: most patients Jarboe operates on are not as hairy as Zane, he said.
“The surgery was the same as it would be for a human, except it was really weird having a patient that was three kilograms that was that hairy,” he said.
After two hours of surgery, Zane made a full recovery. Due to COVID-19 emerging weeks after the procedure, Jarboe was unable to make a follow-up visit to see chimp. He has yet to see Zane since the surgery, as now Zane is protected by one of the older matriarchs of the chimpanzees at the zoo named Trixi.
“It’s not like I can just walk up to the mom and say, ‘Hey, I need to see your baby chimp,’” he joked, noting that mother chimpanzees are very protective and “very, very strong” and a human interaction would present a risk.
Zane has now reacclimated to the “chimp troop.” Trixi now acts as a “great older sister,” Duncan said.
“Zane has been able to live the life he’s meant to as part of his troop,” she said, thanking Jarboe’s team.
For Jarboe, he thanks Duncan and the zoo for the “awesome” collaboration. He added the experience speaks to the unique experiences he’s able to have at Michigan Medicine.
“This is a unique place to be able to do stuff,” he said. “Not everyplace is interested in these types of innovations, and it’s a nice environment for that here at Michigan.”
A Michigan Medicine video telling Jarboe and Zane’s surgery story can be found here.
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