Texas A&M Professors Perform First Humerus Repair On Polar Bear
Posted March 04, 2019
As veterinary surgeons in the Texas A&M College of
Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVM) Large Animal
Hospital, a lot rests in the hands of Drs. Jeffrey Watkins and Kati
Glass. Sometimes their work can be a matter of life and death;
other times, an animal’s quality of life may be at stake.
Drs. Jeffrey Watkins and Kati Glass, and the rest of their team,
prep Nora for surgery. Photo courtesy of Hogle Zoo Graphics
Either way, the pressure to perform can be intense.
Perhaps none more so than when Watkins received a call from
Utah’s Hogle Zoo asking for assistance with a 3-year-old, 500-pound
polar bear named Nora.
Nora, who has accrued quite a following on social media because
of her story—having been abandoned by her mother after birth and
being hand raised by zookeepers in Ohio before making her way to
Salt Lake City—was not acting herself when her keepers found that
she had broken her right humerus.
After reaching out to a small animal surgeon at the University
of California, Davis, the zoo was referred to Watkins, a professor
of large animal surgery in the CVM, who had recently traveled to
the UC Davis to repair a fractured humerus on a foal.
While Watkins had never operated on a bear, his expertise in
developing specialized equipment and implants for repairing unique
fractures led him to accept the challenge.
“There were many unknowns, but we were interested in trying to
help if we possibly could,” he said. “We made contact and started
to have a conversation about whether this might work.”
In addition to whether the fracture could be repaired, Watkins
said logistics of the repair were of the utmost concern.
“First and foremost, I knew I was going to need good help, so
that's where Dr. Glass came in. Second was making sure that we had
the right equipment,” Watkins said. “Then, DePuy Synthes really came through for us with
some equipment that was key for us to be able to do the job.
“The Large Animal Hospital was very supportive, our department
was very supportive, and with DePuy Synthes on board, it all came
together,” he said.
But the challenges and concerns weren’t over.
An X-ray image of Nora's injury
Recognizing that they had no experience working with polar bears,
and really weren’t even familiar with polar bear anatomy, Glass
went to work, researching to learn all she could.
“When Dr. Glass went to the literature, she found our most
useful reference for polar bear anatomy was 1880; so, there was
really no reference material for us to go on,” Watkins said.
“There are a lot of really neat things about polar bears that
now I know,” Glass said. “It turns out, they're pretty similar to
grizzly bears, evolutionarily speaking. They're kind of cousins on
She also learned that from a veterinary standpoint, polar bears
are treated, most often, like a dog. However, Glass and Watkins
knew that a traditional dog approach would not be a viable
“Most importantly, the implant we were relying on to fix the
fracture needed to actually fit a polar bear and it needed to be
something that would be strong enough to handle her weight,” Glass
While working to answer those basic questions, Glass discovered
that Nora is famous.
“She has people who follow her on Facebook and Instagram and
visit her at the zoo; there are these cute little cuddly pictures
of her as a baby, growing up, and with people interacting with
her,” Watkins said. “So now we've got a little more pressure on us
Undeterred, Watkins and Glass headed to Utah to perform the
procedure. After a small snafu involving getting their luggage
containing sterilized instruments cleared through airport security,
the two arrived and performed the procedure, successfully
implanting an intramedullary, interlocking nail Watkins had
developed to stabilize the fractured humerus.
“The surgery took quite
a bit longer than we had hoped it would; it was difficult,” Watkins
said, adding that the procedure took around five hours. “Instead of
an acute fracture, we were dealing with a more chronic situation,
which required much more effort to bring the fractured ends of the
bone into alignment; we all were exhausted once that was finally
accomplished. However, we were happy with the fact that we got the
bone realigned and stabilized in a normal position.”
While they were initially concerned that Nora may rely too
heavily on her broken limb, which might hinder her healing, Watkins
reports that a few weeks after the surgery, Nora is recovering
well. Zoo keepers are continuously updating them on Nora’s progress
through videos and social media updates.
“It's challenging. You can't do a lot of postoperative care,
first, because she's a bear and, second, in trying to evaluate how
she's doing from Texas; you can only do so much,” Watkins
said. “But the veterinarians and caretakers at the Hogle Zoo
are very knowledgeable and are doing a fantastic job of looking
“This is the hard part of orthopedic surgery—the waiting—but so
far, so good,” Glass said. “The next step is to see how the bone
does and we won't know that for several weeks to months at this
point. Her caretakers are doing an excellent job, and she's doing a
great job of taking her medications, but we will be kind of in this
waiting zone for a while.”
Watkins attributed the successful surgery to the quality of care
provided by team members who joined them from across the U.S.,
including Dr. Alessio Vigani, from the North Carolina State College
of Veterinary Medicine, who, along with Dr. Erika Crook, an
associate veterinarian at the Hogle Zoo, were responsible for the
anesthesia. In addition, Dr. Peter Chalmers, from the University of
Utah Department of Orthopaedic Medicine, assisted with the
“The entire team of veterinarians, zookeepers, and staff at
Hogle Zoo are to be commended for Nora’s excellent care before
surgery, as well as post-operatively,” Watkins said. “It was, and
continues to be, a team effort.”
While Nora’s case carried its fair share of stressors and the
outcome is anything but assured, ultimately, it’s “all in a day’s
work” for the Texas A&M veterinarians.
“As veterinarians, our job is to help the animal, first and
foremost,” Glass said. “To know that this implant—which Dr. Watkins
has spent years designing, developing, and finding the best ways to
use—could have an application for other large animals and that a
fracture that we historically thought really didn't have a good
surgical option could be repaired—I think that’s really
“There really weren’t any other good options for Nora. The
technique and implants we've developed to get these kinds of
fractures reduced and stabilized, it's a system that works, and we
want to make it available as often as possible,” Watkins said. “At
the end of the day, our primary concern is for Nora, and hopefully,
our efforts will reflect favorably on the College of Veterinary
Medicine and Texas A&M.”
To learn more about Nora or to follow her progress, visit Hoglezoo.org.
For more information about the Texas
A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences,
please visit our website at vetmed.tamu.edu or join us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Contact Information: Megan Palsa, Executive Director of
Communications, Media & Public Relations, Texas A&M College
of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science; firstname.lastname@example.org;
979-862-4216; 979-421-3121 (cell)
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