Survival of the Finger-Less: A Not-So-Routine Case

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March 19, 2013


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Baptist Health plastic surgeon Joel Levin, M.D., received an urgent call to help a patient with a spreading infection in the bone of her right index finger. The problem was so severe that it was the suspected cause of her recent stillborn baby.

It would be a pro bono case, another of many free surgeries Dr. Levin performs for needy patients, usually children with facial deformities. However, this was not a routine case, or patient.

Bonnie, the patient, is one of Zoo Miami’s two resident orangutans, an extremely endangered species that shares 97 percent of human DNA. The infection grew from an injury, a suspected bite from Bonnie’s mate, Mango, months earlier.

Dr. Levin, assisted by plastic surgeon Joshua Lampert, M.D., and Baptist Hospital nurses Linda Timmons, R.N., and Lee Weirich, R.N., arrived in the surgery suite at Zoo Miami to see if he could save Bonnie’s finger — and perhaps her life.

When Dr. Levin saw the X-ray, it was clear. “The finger had to be amputated,” he said. Dr. Levin performed the same painstaking “flap reconstruction” that he would carry out on a human patient.

Zoo Miami spokesman Ron Magill, who photographed the operation, was impressed with the meticulous care Dr. Levin and his team gave Bonnie.

“He knew how he was going to make it work, cosmetically and functionally. He rerouted the nerve to create a new circuit. It was a tremendous amount of time-consuming work that didn’t need to be done,” Mr. Magill said. “He wanted to save Bonnie from unnecessary pain.”

The first day Bonnie was allowed outside, less than a month after her surgery last fall, she used her right hand normally, peeling bananas, swinging from tree limbs and “knuckle-walking.” Most zoo-goers would never notice the missing finger.

“Dr. Levin is not only a surgeon, he’s an artist,” Mr. Magill said. “He made it incredibly cosmetically appealing. We consider it a real privilege to have him come here.”

For more than a decade, Dr. Levin has played a leading role in Day of Smiles, Baptist Children’s Hospital’s annual program to give free corrective facial and reconstructive surgeries to low-income and uninsured children. Dr. Levin considers it his “hobby” to donate his services to help youngsters — and the occasional primate. “I did a cleft lip on a monkey about 15 years ago,” he said.

The zoo staff is hoping for another orangutan pregnancy, with Mango as the father, now that Bonnie’s infection has been eradicated. “I know Mango will try again,” Mr. Magill said.

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