• Article
  • May 17, 2017

Children's Hospital Team Treats Sick Monkey at Zoo

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin clinicians treated Noelle, a 3-year-old bonobo.
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin clinicians treated Noelle, a 3-year-old bonobo.

When Rainer Gedeit receives an urgent page, the pediatric critical care clinical director at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin knows it means a patient needs him. One day, while running errands, it was no different—he received an emergency message that a youngster was critically ill with a respiratory illness.

But this time the page read, "sick monkey," which was a first for Gedeit. His office told him a Milwaukee County Zoo bonobo was critically ill, and the zoo was asking for his help. The entire bonobo troop, nearly 25 animals at the zoo, had fallen ill. Several animals had developed pneumonia, and one adult animal died the night before.

Zoo keepers found Noelle, an almost 3-year-old bonobo, listless in her mother's arms that morning. She was in significant respiratory distress, and zoo staff had inserted a breathing tube. They asked Gedeit for treatment recommendations, and he called Khris O'Brien, respiratory therapist at the hospital, who located a retired Children's ventilator for the zoo.

When O'Brien first saw 16-pound Noelle, she asked whether she should look purple. The veterinarians said, no, she should look like a human baby. O'Brien then knew the bonobo had dangerously high carbon dioxide levels and was suffering from septic shock. "I have treated children for 35 years, so it wasn't a big stretch," O'Brien told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "When I saw what was basically a child lying on the gurney, I went into 'I've got to help her' mode. That was my only thought."

Because bonobos are very similar to humans, treating a sick 3-year-old bonobo is not much different from treating a sick 3-year-old child. They're just hairier, Gedeit says.

O'Brien manually squeezed oxygen into Noelle while Joe Kau, a biomedical equipment technician from Children's, hooked up the hospital's ventilator. O'Brien showed zoo officials how to use the ventilator but then realized the zoo only had oxygen, and Noelle needed a mix of air and oxygen. So the team rigged a nebulizer normally used to deliver medication through an inhaled mist.

Zoo staff members stayed with Noelle around the clock, with O'Brien checking in every few hours. Bonobos typically recover from human illnesses quicker than people, and that was true for Noelle. She was weaned off the ventilator, began breathing on her own and her oxygen levels returned to normal.

Gedeit and O'Brien knew their patient was feeling better when within four hours, she was hanging upside down by her toes, zoo keepers said.

Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.