Secret Lives: Gorilla Doctor
Fertility, pregnancy, premenstrual syndrome, uterine irregularities. Providing medical care for such aspects of female reproductive health is par for the course for any OB/GYN.
But providing this care to a gorilla?
Tom Harmon, MD, vice president of medical affairs at OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital, is one of very few OB/GYNs who can speak to that.
For about 11 years, Dr. Harmon has worked as a consultant to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. He specializes in diagnosing and treating reproductive problems in apes — from gorillas to bonobos to orangutans.
“It’s not so much different (to treating humans), other than that they don’t speak a language that you understand,” Dr. Harmon says. “Anatomically there’s almost no difference. Size differences, yes, but the actual makeup of their internal organs from a female perspective, they have a uterus, two ovaries, just like humans do.”
Dr. Harmon didn’t have any experience working with apes when he took on the consulting role at the request of a zoo board member in 2004. But the physician soon learned that the key to working with animals is observational skills. For that, Dr. Harmon says he relies greatly on the animals’ handlers who are trained to notice changes in behavior. From there, he applies his medical knowledge about humans to the apes with which he’s working.
Over the years, Dr. Harmon has provided guidance on numerous primate pregnancies, helped the zoo tackle problems with fertility, nursing, premenstrual syndrome and abnormal bleeding. He’s even performed hysterectomies on a bonobo and a gorilla.
“I’ve treasured the times I’ve been able to help out,” says Dr. Harmon. “Being a part of something different than my day-in and day-out job has been great, and I feel like I’m making a difference in the community which the zoo is a huge part of.”