It was wild: Fort Worth physician tests her leadership skills in gorilla C-section 

dfwnewsa | February 22, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

It was wild: Fort Worth physician tests her leadership skills in gorilla C-section 

Dr. Jamie Erwin holds baby gorilla Jameela shortly after her birth. (Courtesy photo | Fort Worth Zoo)
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Dr. Jamie Erwin feels all of her patients are special. But even she admits the baby she helped deliver Jan. 5 of this year will stand out. 

Erwin was called by the Fort Worth Zoo to help with the birth of a baby gorilla via emergency cesarean section after life-threatening complications endangered the health of the mother, Sekani. 

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“It was an unforgettable highlight of my life and my career, just one of the coolest days ever,” said the 42-year-old Erwin, a Fort Worth native. “I was just so blessed to be a part of the whole experience.” 

It was the first time in the zoo’s 115-year history that a C-section was used to add to the gorilla population. Gorillas are critically endangered in the wild, said Sarah Cannizzo, associate veterinarian.  

On Jan. 3, zookeepers noticed Sekani holding her head, as if she had a headache. They suspected the 33-year-old gorilla was exhibiting symptoms of preeclampsia, a serious, potentially fatal blood pressure condition that can occur during pregnancy in both humans and primates. Following testing to support that diagnosis, zoo veterinarians reached out to Erwin, who already had a working relationship with the zoo.

“The cure of preeclampsia is birth,” said Erwin. 

She was tasked with putting together a team that usually performs human C-sections to operate on a 200-pound gorilla — and there wasn’t much time to lose. 

“We had maybe 10 technicians, zookeepers, assistants,” Erwin said. “There were a lot of people. It took a lot of logistics, just planning, organizing and executing the mission.”

Being an OB/GYN is a demanding profession, Erwin said. “We’re one of the few specialties that takes calls and is up working at all hours in the middle of the night, delivering babies,” she said. Usually, those calls involve human births.

She was on vacation when she got the call from the zoo but headed back early. 

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“It was a patient with an emergency and Dr. Erwin answered the call,” Cannizzo said. 

Along with Erwin, the assembled team included neonatologist Robert Ursprung and Dennis Occkiogrosso, a nurse anesthetist. 

“It was really just this beautiful team effort of veterinarians coming together with medical doctors for this very special delivery,” Erwin said. 

Because primates are the closest relatives to humans, much about Sekani’s anatomy was the same, Erwin said. 

“When they shaved her abdomen, Sekani has this really thick fur, so that was different, but the incision we made was the same,” she said. “Her skin is much thicker, sturdier, more leather-ike, but all the layers are the same.” 

Erwin did take extra care to make sure to suture the cuts securely. 

“You can’t tell Sekani to take it easy. She won’t take instruction,” she said. The team ended up closing some of the layers with extra stitches. 

The team also came up with an idea to keep the gorilla occupied, so she doesn’t damage the stitches. 

Baby Jameela at the Fort Worth Zoo. (Courtesy photo | Fort Worth Zoo)

“It was very smart; the veterinarians came up with it. While she was asleep, they got a stick of deodorant, human deodorant, and put it all around the incision,” Erwin said. “That way if somebody tries to lick the incision, they would taste that and not be interested.” 

The team also painted Sekani’s fingernails when she was asleep, hoping they would distract her when she woke up. 

The care the premature female gorilla — who was four to six weeks early — was given upon birth was similar to what a human baby born prematurely would receive. The baby received resuscitation and stabilization, respiratory support, radiographs and serial examinations.

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Erwin is already receiving calls from other physicians who want to know the details of the operation. 

“They want to know what sutures I used, what the uterus looked like, things like that, all the technical stuff,” she said.  

Because Sekani didn’t have a traditional birth, she didn’t develop the right hormones to create a bond with the baby, said Cannizzo. 

As a result, the zoo staff is working with a 24-year-old female gorilla, Gracie, to become a surrogate mother for Jameela. So far, that seems to be working, said Cannizzo. 

“It’s an ongoing process, but we want her to be raised by gorillas,” she said. 

Until then, zookeepers will continue to care for Jameela, whose name in Swahili means “beautiful.” It’s also a nod to Jamie Erwin, who never imagined she’d bring a primate into the world.

“It was one of our interns that first suggested it, I think,” said Cannizzo. The zoo’s gorilla team thought it was a great idea. 

“The fact that it also pays tribute to Dr. Erwin is just so fitting, I think, and just perfect,” said Cannizzo. 

For Erwin, it means a lot. 

“I got really emotional when they announced that,” she said. “I just love that I’m connected forever to this baby gorilla and get to watch her grow at the Fort Worth Zoo.” 

Dr. Jamie Walker Erwin bio: 

Family: Husband Charlie Erwin; daughter, Georgia Louise, 13; son, Henry Walker Erwin, 8 

Education: Graduated from Paschal High School; Bachelor of Science at the University of Arkansas; Doctor of Medicine at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; residency in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Alabama Medical Center 

Other activities: Assistant professor at TCU’s Burnett School of Medicine 

Volunteer: Board of the Mercy Clinic; Board of the Davey O’Brien Foundation; Board of Justin’s Place. She is also a member of the Tarrant County Medical Society. 

Honors/Awards: Dallas Fort Worth OB/GYN Society Medical Student Award and the UAB Argus Award for Best Teaching OB/GYN Resident. She was the 1998 Davey O’Brien High School Scholar Athlete Award winner. In college, she was an NCAA Division 1 Track and Field All-American in the heptathlon.

Advice she took to heart: “I remember asking Dr. Rebecca Naylor about making a decision about a specialty in medical school, because you don’t want to be wrong. 

“She said, ‘Jamie, just keep walking with the Lord, keep your faith strong, stay connected to him, abide in him and he will continue to direct your path.’ And I’ve tried to do that over the years, I’ve tried to keep my faith a priority.”

Advice she gives to others: “I tell them, ‘Find what you’re passionate about.’ When you’re passionate about it, and you’re excited about it, it doesn’t feel like work. And it’s much easier to get out of bed, even on those hard days, when it’s something that really just lights a fire in you and that you’re passionate about. That can get you in position for leadership.” 

Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at bob.francis@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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