Demba, a gorilla at the Philadelphia Zoo, is alive and well after her hysterectomy on Jan. 6. Although 8-year-old Grace Harbison is taking credit for the 218-pound gorilla’s health, it was really her father, Dr. Sean Harbison, a Temple surgeon, professor and researcher who performed the operation.
Demba’s problems began simply enough with a rotten tooth. When veterinarians placed her under anaesthesia to fix her cavity, they took the opportunity to conduct a full exam on the sedated ape. That is when they discovered an 11-pound fibroid tumor inside her uterus.
When the Philadelphia Zoo’s head veterinarian, Keith Hinshaw, contacted veterinary surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania, they suggested he recruit a human surgeon because their anatomies are so similar. The surgeon was Sean Harbison; the surgery would be his first on an animal.
Harbison and Hinshaw’s daughters attend school together, which helped lead Harbison to the position.
“My daughter likes to take full credit for my involvement,” laughed Harbison, “but Keith and I have had a professional relationship for years.”
It was actually an incident in the early 1990s that originally brought the pair together. Harbison had a patient who endowed a large sum of money to the Philadelphia Zoo after a fire destroyed the primates’ habitat.
“The operation was really interesting,’ said Harbison, who had to perform the surgery without any examination beforehand or previous X-rays. Despite being given little to prepare with, Harbison said that the procedure was “pretty straightforward.” He, along with a team of 22, performed the surgery in about an hour.
“Once the sheet was on,” said Harbison, “it was almost exactly like working on a human.”
Although the surgery restored Demba’s health, sadly it also ruined her chances of reproduction, the reason Demba was originally brought to the Philadelphia Zoo five years ago.
Even without medical complications, Demba’s chances of adding to the gene pool were not as high as they could have been. Demba was raised by humans and didn’t have contact with other gorillas until the age of eight. When around her own kind, she appeared uninterested.
Although this was his first operation outside of the human species, Harbison refers to himself as “a jack of all trades, master of none,” and was not taken aback by the unusual nature of the surgery.
Sean Harbison is an associate professor of surgery at Temple University Health Science Campus. He explains that his role with Temple is three-fold.
Harbison is a general surgeon at Temple University Hospital who operates almost every day. He also teaches at Temple’s medical school as the directory of surgery clerkship. Harbison lectures first- and second-year medical students while also organizing the surgery experiences of those in their third and fourth years.
On top of these demanding tasks, Harbison also conducts research as part of his faculty position. He is currently investigating different methods of instructing medical students in order to better the teaching process, as well as conducting research on improving cancer surgery.
When asked if he would be conducting anymore animal surgeries, Harbison responded that he would be open to it, but noted the difficulty of billing a gorilla.
Megan Davies can be reached at email@example.com.