Norton Heart & Vascular Institute physician and staff volunteer heart expertise to primates

Time and talent donated to care for our animal friends at Louisville Zoo

Joseph A. Lash, M.D., cardiologist, and Robin Simpson, echo/vascular coordinator, Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Heart Rhythm Center – Springs, collectively have cared for heart patients in Louisville for more than 30 years. They see most of their patients in the office or sometimes in the hospital. But every now and then, Dr. Lash and Robin grab their keys, coats and stethoscopes and take a trip to visit some primate patients at the Louisville Zoo.

“About 15 years ago I was asked to consult with Zoli Gyimesi, DVM, senior veterinarian at the Louisville Zoo,” Dr. Lash said. “At the time, there wasn’t much known and little data being collected in regard to the primates and their cardiovascular care. Our partnership now allows the zoo to submit data that we collect from apes — such as heart chamber size, wall thickness, valve function and cardiac output size — to a nationwide consortium known as the Great Ape Heart Project. All of this helps everyone caring for these primates better understand their cardiovascular care, detect concerns that would otherwise be undiagnosed and provide treatment options when possible.”

Dr. Lash and Robin work as a tag team in most instances. The zoo will contact Robin when a physical is scheduled or anytime a primate is going under anesthesia. Surprisingly, some testing is performed while the gorillas are awake.

“Occasionally, we do their ultrasounds during the gorillas’ training time, when they are guided through a series of behavior requests and given treats from the zoo staff,” Robin said.

Using the zoo’s ultrasound equipment, she works with the zookeepers to perform ultrasound tests, separated from the 200-to 400-pound primates by a steel mesh barrier.

“While the gorilla is rewarded with treats for being cooperative, I am able to have an ultrasound probe in contact with its chest through mesh to record images of the heart,” she said.

Robin then brings the ultrasound report to Dr. Lash for review. Based on what Dr. Lash observes from the scan, he consults with Dr. Gyimesi to recommend a course of treatment if necessary.

“In terms of the heart structure, the general anatomy is very similar to the human heart,” Dr. Lash said. “Many of the things we can do in terms of imaging and diagnostic testing on a human heart run parallel to that of a primate heart.”

As primates are scheduled for routine physicals, Coach Zoli, as Dr. Lash refers to Dr. Gyimesi, calls in all the key players to support the care needed. Most recently, Demba, the zoo’s second oldest female gorilla, had her physical. Since she was diagnosed with a heart valve infection a few years back, Dr. Lash and Robin were called in to participate in the recheck examination, along with an ear, nose and throat specialist, a dentist and an anesthesiologist.

See footage of the exam Dr. Lash and Robin participated in:


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