Riverside Physicians Make ‘House Calls’ At Columbus Zoo


UPDATED: Wednesday November 14, 2012 6:43 PM

When a person is in need of a specialist for a medical condition, they go to the doctor. However, at Riverside Methodist Hospital, a select group of physicians makes house calls when patients need their help at the Columbus Zoo.

Senior veterinarian Dr. Michael Barrie, along with three other veterinarians, has managed the care of 10,000 animals for 11 years.

“The work is always interesting,” Barrie said. “There’s always something new coming along.”

Nevertheless, mastering the anatomy and biology of 575 species is a daunting task.

“Veterinarians are trained to do surgery. They're trained to treat things,” Barrie said. “We're kind of general. Like the general doctor, the country doctor was a generation or so ago.”

So, when Barrie needs a specialist, he calls on one of 15 physicians at Riverside Methodist Hospital. Physicians like Dr. Tom Harmon, an obstetrician and gynecologist, donate their time to help.

Harmon is called in to do ultrasounds on pregnant women. He also does them on gorillas and operates when necessary.

“They're very, very muscular, so their skin is quite tough and hard,” Harmon said. “On the inside, it's really no different than a human.”

Harmon also answers gorilla questions about fertility issues and PMS.

The similarity between humans and animals is why Dr. James Nappi was called in to help Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity —now a grandmother.

“Grandmas get arthritis, and guess what? Some of our gorillas have gotten arthritic,” Nappi said.

Colo’s big toe, which acts as a thumb, was giving her trouble. As a hand surgeon, Nappi normally performs microsurgery on humans, but because Colo needed help, he operated on her, too.

“We basically did a little limited fusion to improve function for her,” Nappi said.

Specialists in everything from anesthesia to ear, nose and throat to cardiology have shared their skills to help these animals. First, they must know there is a problem.

“None of our animals can tell us what's wrong,” Barrie said.

So the physicians rely on zookeepers to spot behavior changes as they perform routine care.

Compliant animals are easier to treat, so staff members teach some specialized behaviors. For example, one gorilla was ebing taught to come close, climb and spread his arms. Male gorillas develop heart problems and need exercise.

Gorillas also need their hearts checked. The staff used to sedate them to perform echocardiograms. However, this training allows docs to perform heart scans on alert and cooperative patients.

 Barrie is grateful that these specialists share his love of animals and the doctor volunteer to help keep them healthy

"I probably get along with some of the animals better than I do with some of my family members,” Nappi said.

Doctors in thirteen specialties help out with the zoo animals. Some of them have been volunteering for more than 20 years.

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