Two hours into a surgery to save Kyah, a 6-month-old giraffe, and veterinary surgeon Mark Rochat runs into a problem.
As he attempts to cut away a vessel that has grown around the giraffe’s esophagus, he can’t stop the bleeding. The soft tissue around the vessel isn’t strong enough to hold sutures. If the bleeding can’t be stopped, she will die.
“Remember, this is an embryological screw-up to begin with,” Rochat said. “The tissue wasn’t normal to begin with. From a surgeon’s standpoint, that’s interesting, but also infuriating.”
The planning for the operation began when it was discovered Kyah, from the Oklahoma City Zoo, suffered from a persistent right aortic arch, a three-inch vessel that had wrapped around her esophagus. As she grew, the vessel tightened, making it impossible to eat solid foods. The condition is the result of a birth defect.
The zoo veterinary staff assembled at 5:30 Tuesday morning to begin the delicate process of separating a 525-pound baby giraffe from its mother. She was guided onto a trailer on loan from the Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, Mo.
The zoo’s team had rehearsed the plan to get Kyah on the trailer the day before.
“We knew exactly where each person was going to be, up to where their fingers were to be positioned on the fence in case she kicked,” Zoo curator of mammals Laura Bottaro said.
The one-hour trip to Stillwater would be one of the few things that went as expected the rest of the day.
Once inside the CT room at Oklahoma State’s veterinary school, it became obvious that Kyah wasn’t even close to fitting inside the machine. The CT scan was supposed to give surgeons a pinpoint location of where the problem area was. But even for one of the most advanced veterinary schools in the United States there are limitations. Vets must make do with machines designed for humans.
“We get calls probably once a month from doctors who have patients who are over 500 pounds and they want to know if they can use our hippo MRI machine,” zoo veterinarian Jennifer D’Agostino said. “There is no such machine.”
The problem meant Rochat and surgeons Danielle Dugat and Michael Schoonover would not have the critical images of the problem area.
“We took her into surgery flying blind,” Rochat said. “But that’s the nature of zoo medicine.”
Rochat, who had performed the same operation on more than a dozen dogs and cats, quickly realized the differences in anatomy would be another challenge.
“In a dog, you can pull their legs out of the way fairly easily to get access to the chest area, but not in a giraffe,” Rochat said. “In a giraffe you can’t do that.”
Members of the zoo’s team took turns holding Kyah’s long leg in the best position possible. Once Rochat reached the chest area, he was confronted with a heart the size of a basketball. As D’Agostino watched they began looking for the problem vessel.
“The heart is beating and the lungs are inflating and it’s really challenging,” D’Agostino said. “It took a lot of effort to find that vessel because of the sheer size of her heart.”