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The future appears promising for Beta, a menopausal western lowland gorilla at Brookfield Zoo who is celebrating her 47th birthday this month. She had been experiencing what some human women also experience—abdominal discomfort and heavy vaginal bleeding caused by a fibroid mass.

Nearly three and a half months have passed since Dr. Steven Smith and his colleagues Drs. Luke Sewall and Francis Facchini, interventional radiologists at Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital, made a house call to Brookfield Zoo. They came here to perform the first-ever documented uterine fibroid embolization, or UFE, on a nonhuman primate in order to hopefully shrink Beta’s tumor.

Dr. Natalie Mylniczenko, an associate veterinarian for the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages Brookfield Zoo, performed a follow-up ultrasound on Beta in January. In attendance to witness it was Dr. Smith, as well as Dr. Susan Murrey, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital who has consulted with CZS veterinarians on several of the zoo’s animals, including Beta. 

Beta GorillaThe images showed that the mass not only shriveled up but also shrunk from a diameter of 5.5 cm. to 1.5 cm. In addition, the bleeding stopped soon after the embolization procedure, which was performed in mid-September 2007.

“If this procedure had been not performed, there definitely would have been quality-of-life issues for Beta,” said Mylniczenko. “We were concerned about the amount of blood loss, resulting in bouts of anemia, and it was evident from her behavior that she also was experiencing abdominal pain. We are very grateful to the doctors for their time and expertise in assisting CZS staff in providing the best care possible for Beta.”

The embolization procedure is a high-tech, minimally invasive treatment, an option that many American women with uterine fibroids are not aware of because they are still being steered toward surgery, according to Smith. During the one-and-a-half-hour procedure, a catheter, or tiny tube, was inserted into an artery in Beta’s left arm and was then guided into the uterine artery. An arteriogram (an X-ray in which a dye is injected into the blood vessels) was performed to map the artery feeding the fibroid. Next, tiny microscopic particles (hollow plastic spheres about half a millimeter in diameter) were injected through the catheter and into the fibroid, cutting off its blood supply. The procedure caused Beta’s fibroid to shrink, but her uterus and ovaries were spared.

The success of the procedure has wide-ranging implications for female gorillas in zoos. With a growing population of aging gorillas who may have the same or similar medical condition as Beta, this relatively new procedure—the first UFE procedure on a human in Illinois was done 10 years ago—can lead to a significant improvement in health and overall well-being. This treatment option may prove especially valuable for the species, given that medical professionals often have difficulty performing hysterectomies—a common treatment for uterine bleeding—on gorillas because of their specific anatomical features.