Just outside the Nebraska Medical Center on Saturday, six people using a sturdy net lifted a 432-pound patient onto a gurney — a gorilla.
Motuba, a 28-year-old silverback known as “Tubby,” had suffered a fractured upper jaw Thursday evening at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. He apparently was pushed down by a 14-year-old, 460-pound gorilla named Tattoo, though no one saw it happen.
“Tubby used to be in charge,” said Dr. Julie Napier, the zoo's senior veterinarian. Tattoo, she said, is “a youngster feeling his oats.”
It's very unusual for a zoo animal to be transported to a regular hospital, she said, adding that it has happened only three times in Omaha in the past six years.
The gurney carrying the sedated Tubby was rolled inside, where the six handlers — on a count of “1, 2, 3” — shifted him onto a flat surface and slid him into place for a CT scan of his head.
Dr. William Lydiatt, a head and neck surgeon who volunteers with the zoo, left his son's track meet and arrived to help zoo vets assess the situation. Kneeling next to the gorilla, he used a flashlight to inspect the damage. With his fingers, he could feel bone fragments.
Lydiatt specializes in such things as head and neck cancers, salivary diseases and thyroid tumors. He has checked gorillas' thyroids before and operated on two monkeys, but this would be his first surgery on a gorilla.
The fracture on the upper right of the mouth was obvious, but the CT scan would determine if there was further damage to the sinus or eye orbit.
If this were a human, Lydiatt said, the jaw would be wired after surgery. A problem with the extremely powerful jaw muscles of a gorilla, he said, is that even with much thicker baling wire, the animal would tear it apart.
On a computer screen, the doc studied the scan with Dr. Anne Hubbard, a radiologist whose late parents' donations led to the naming of the zoo's Hubbard Gorilla Valley.
“It's a bit of an unusual break,” Lydiatt said. The fracture was upward, as if the gorilla was pushed from behind and fell forward, hitting the tip of his large canine tooth on a hard surface.
Said Napier: “I think he hit the concrete stairs.”
Veterinarians handle most illnesses and injuries at the zoo hospital, she said, but felt they needed a specialist in this case.
The CT scan indicated that Tubby's sinus and orbit were all right, and it was decided to operate immediately on the CT table. The room was all khaki and green, an assemblage that reached 20 — mainly zoo staffers in tan uniforms and medical people in green scrubs.
Though Tubby was given additional anesthetic, the zoo folks who had brought him continued to hold on to him. Each played a defined role. For example, some stroked his fingers and toes, making sure they stayed “floppy,” an indication he was not beginning to rouse.
Among those at close quarters were Dr. Doug Armstrong, the zoo's director of animal health, and Dan Houser, curator of large mammals.
Surgery, which included removing the broken jaw fragment and three teeth, took about 30 minutes, ending at 11:03 a.m. Assisting Lydiatt were resident surgeons Dr. Lindsey Klocke, originally from Minnesota; Dr. Bala Natarajan, from India; and Dr. Blake Hyde, from Hastings, Neb.
Watching Dr. Lydiatt surgically repair an unusual injury of such scale and magnitude, Dr. Hyde said, was helpful to young surgeons. “It helps us get out of our element a little bit.”
Lydiatt said Tubby should recover in two or three weeks. Gorillas in captivity can live into their 40s or 50s.
Napier said Tattoo, the young aggressor, temporarily has been separated from other gorillas. She said zookeepers do an excellent job, and the scuffle Thursday happened out of view as the animals were being transferred to their nightly quarters.
The Omaha zoo is one of only about three in America, she said, that manages so many adult male gorillas together — nine. Omaha also has a young male and three females.
The world-class zoo is Nebraska's No. 1 tourist site, with 1.38 million visitors last year. The medical center and Lydiatt donated the scan and surgery.
Lydiatt said the procedures didn't take time or space needed for humans and were scheduled on a day when the medical center wasn't taking normal emergency-trauma ambulance calls. The area, he added, would receive a thorough cleaning.
Tubby, born in Ohio, has lived at the Omaha zoo for most of his life, and millions have seen him over the past quarter-century. His transfer to the medical center Saturday wasn't announced, but word quickly spread and even attracted hospital staffers.
“It's always supposed to be a secret,” said one medical professional. “But it's always hard to keep something like this quiet.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, firstname.lastname@example.org