Sunday, August 29, 1999

Eminent M.D. paid peanuts for house call




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They are a nice little family. Cute baby. Protective dad. Well, he's the stepfather really. The baby's biological father lives in Philadelphia; and although the parting was amicable, he has started a new life and has little interest in the mother or their son.

        Then the young mother developed a lump on her breast.

        Dr. Donna Stahl didn't object when the stepdad insisted on peering over her shoulder during the examination. Although, to tell the truth, she thought he was a little scary. He's very hairy and weighs 500 pounds.

        The patient is Kweli, a lowland gorilla who has been a patient of Dr. Stahl's since last fall. The gorilla's keeper first noticed the lump when it was about the size of an egg. Cancer? Infection? A benign tumor? “Even though Kweli is young, we were worried,” Mark Campbell, the zoo's director of veterinary services, admits. He got on the Internet, looking for information about gorillas and breast disease.

        Nothing.

        Then somebody told him about Donna Stahl. Probably the best-known local expert in diseases of the human breast, Dr. Stahl has a soft voice and a completely kind face. Gentle hands. Animals apparently value these qualities as much as we humans do.

        Kweli placidly slurped Gatorade while the physician palpated her breast. No tranquilizers. No drugs. Nothing that might harm the baby, Kicho, who is still nursing. “Kind of a mama's boy,” is Dr. Campbell's diagnosis.

        Meanwhile, Colossus jealously oversaw the whole procedure from an adjacent cage. He is the longtime zoo resident probably most famous for what he does not do. Which is make babies of his own. Chaka, a 14-year-old silverback who was on loan to our zoo, is Kicho's father.

        Back now in Philadelphia after five years here, Chaka left behind eight babies and “a lovely parting gift,” according to the zoo's general curator, Mike Dulaney. Rosie, a 25-year-old western lowland gorilla, is expecting.

        Colossus still has not selected a mate. “Performance anxiety” is Mr. Dulaney's opinion.

        But “the kids absolutely love him,” says Dr. Campbell, who is still hoping Colossus might “interact,” as he delicately puts it, with his female neighbors. “He is in excellent physical condition.”

        So is Kweli. As it turned out, her problem was a blocked milk duct. She's back to normal now, but Dr. Campbell will add Dr. Stahl's name to his list of consulting physicians, along with cardiologists and ophthalmologists and dentists and gynecologists who normally treat humans.

        When you're responsible for the care of 700 species, you would hardly be expected to specialize in, say, breasts or bones or hearts. Dr. Campbell is not shy about asking for help.

        “Nobody has ever refused me, even though we don't pay them,” he says. “I think they do it because they are curious. And they know it's important. We are in this together.”

        Not just Kweli and Colossus. Not just doctors and vets. Everybody. Dr. Campbell just returned from a trip to South America to help reintroduce macaws to their natural habitat, “trying to repair broken strands of the web,” he says. “There's a reason things were put on this earth. A reason. We are interrelated.”

        One endangered species leads to another. And another.

        Once you believe that, it's probably not much of a stretch to ask an eminent physician to put her hands through the bars of a cage to treat a sick gorilla, an ailing member of an endangered species. Mark Campbell says it is our obligation to take care of each other.

        It's not just nice. It's the only way to live.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE