General News
Posted April 29, 2009
Baby Tigers Treated at All Children's Hospital

When it comes to some unique patients at All Children's Hospital, the cat's out of the bag.

Make that cats - Chester and Fabian. They're tiger cubs, born Easter Sunday at Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation in Seminole, FL.  A local veterinarian contacted to check out the newborns quickly discovered they both had a problem - cleft palate, a hole in the roof of the mouth that makes it difficult for babies of any kind to suck, swallow and grow.  Tiger cubs born with this defect usually don't survive, and might ordinarily have been euthanized on the spot.

But this vet just couldn't do that.

Dr. Don Woodman, from the Animal Hospital of Northwood in Safety Harbor, was born with a cleft lip and palate that was repaired by Virginia surgeons forty years ago. He knew - in theory - the cubs' cleft palates could be fixed.

But as Woodman began checking with veterinarians across the nation, he could find no one who had attempted a cleft repair in a big cat.  Undeterred, Woodman turned to an expert in human cleft repair - Dr. Michael Gallant, a pediatric reconstructive surgeon at All Children's Hospital.  For more than thirty years, Gallant has been changing the faces of newborns at All Children's with miraculous results. 

Could he help a pair of tiger cubs?

Maybe - but first, he'd need more information. And the best way to get it would be through an MRI study. Gallant approached administrators at All Children's Hospital, which agreed to scan one of the cubs, so long as it could be done without additional costs or impact to patient care.

On Wednesday night April 22, the Woodmans brought the cubs through a rear hospital entrance close to the MRI unit. A group of doctors and hospital staff volunteered their time to help out, including pediatric anesthesiologists Linda Jo Rice, MD and Michael Garcia, MD; pediatric radiologists Kevin Potthast, MD and James Anderson, MD; MRI Radiology Technologist Deb Brannon; Speech-Language Pathologist Margie Wells-Friedman and orthodontist Amy Anderson, MD, members of the All Children's Cleft Palate Team.

It's hard to ask a baby - or a ten-day old tiger - to hold still for an hour-long MRI scan. So Fabian had help sleeping through the study, thanks to Drs. Rice and Garcia.
Dr. Potthast and MRI Technologist Brannon collaborated to customize the scans to a tiny tiger's anatomy. And, all the while, Dr. Woodman stood at his furry little patient's side in the MRI Unit.

Meanwhile, Chester was surrounded by his own group of specialists.  As he nestled in the lap of Susan Woodman, vet tech and wife of Dr. Woodman, Dr. Anderson used a special material to cast a mold of Chester's upper jaw and cleft. It allows Anderson to fashion a cleft feeding appliance like ones occasionally used for babies.   Much like a retainer, it snaps into place, covering the cleft with a hard surface that will make it easier to suckle.

Then, it was time for Chester's dinner. Until this point, the Woodmans and their staff had been feeding the cubs their formula through a tube into their mouths. Speech Pathologist Wells-Friedman showed Susan how to use a baby bottle with a special nipple designed for human infants with cleft palate. Bottle-feeding will be much easier than the tube approach once the tiger's teeth begin to come in.

Sadly, five days after their visit to All Children's, one of the tigers - Chester - passed away due to respiratory arrest. Despite the best efforts of Animal Hospital staff, he could not be revived.

It will take some time for Drs. Woodman and Gallant to evaluate the cleft repair possibilities for Fabian, but they are hopeful the surgery can be done. Fabian will need to grow before surgery - at least two months from now. In the meantime, he's getting the best of care at Animal Hospital of Northwood - with All Children's ready to help if needed.

Editor's note: We are sorry to report that Fabian the tiger cub died Saturday, June 6, 2009, as a result of a ruptured esophagus, caused by a previously undetected birth defect.  You can read more about it, including comments from Dr. Woodman, on the website.