When Daniel the orangutan arrived at the Phoenix Zoo in Arizona, he was in rough shape.
He was suffering from a respiratory disease, which, just like in humans, can worsen and even lead to death when untreated.
The stakes were high, especially considering that orangutans are a highly endangered species. And respiratory illnesses can be even more dangerous for orangutans which have an inflatable air sac that can be vulnerable when it becomes infected. Located in their throats, these air sacs are helpful in allowing orangutans to sustain the loud calls they're known for by creating a chamber for the sound to resonate within, but these air sacs are also prone to infection.
Dr. Gary West, executive vice president of animal health and collections at the Phoenix Zoo, was hopeful that cleaning the site of the infection would be enough for Daniel. But it wasn't.
The infection returned, and West quickly realized Daniel would need a sinus surgery if he had any shot at recovering. But that surgery required expertise that West didn't have. So they called in Dr. David Simms, an ENT specialist with Dignity Health, to perform the surgery.
There was just one problem: Simms had never operated on an orangutan before.
Humans and orangutans are pretty similar, but they're obviously not the same. This didn't intimidate Simms, though, who was excited to apply what he knew about humans to a different species. When Simms saw how badly Daniel needed the procedure, he was even more determined.
"I knew that I could help him," he explains. "I really didn't think twice."
Simms was relieved that Dignity Health, a health provider based in San Francisco, encouraged him to do the procedure and helped to plan it even though Daniel wasn't a human patient. With the right team behind him, Simms was confident he could perform the surgery.
Simms got to work. He started by studying up on orangutan anatomy before surgery.
He took CT scans so he could take a close look at the differences between a human's sinuses and an orangutan's. He even had a 3D replica of Daniel's skull printed to practice on before the actual surgery.
Being able to practice ahead of time was especially important because Daniel was already at a higher risk for complications because of the underlying air sac infection.
Luckily for Daniel, all the work paid off. The surgery went off without a hitch.
Almost immediately afterward, it was clear it'd been a success. Daniel's eyes were brighter, and his appetite was bigger.
"He wanted to eat everything in sight," says Mary Yoder, primate manager at the Phoenix Zoo. "He was back to his old self."
Daniel was doing extraordinarily well after the surgery, and his recovery offers hope for other primates who face the same challenges.
Many orangutans like Daniel deal with respiratory disease. Because they are on the brink of extinction, surgeries like these can make or break the survival of an entire species. When experts like Simms step in, they're not saving only a single orangutan — they're helping in conservation efforts to ensure orangutans survive well into the future.
Simms is hopeful this surgery will offer a model on which future surgeries can be based, helping all sorts of primates live longer, happier lives.
As for Daniel, the Phoenix Zoo hopes he'll find a mate, have a family, and enjoy a long life ahead of him, free of the disease that once held him back.