A penguin, an antelope, and a gorilla walk into a tractor trailer …
The scenario definitely has the makings of a great story, but it’s no joke. In fact, when those animals, and many others enter Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers’ mobile PET/CT scan unit or inside the Midtown location, it may just save their lives. Since 2010, RMCC has been partnering with Cheyenne Mountain and Denver zoos to diagnose ailing animals.
It started when Cheyenne Mountain Zoo noticed Rafiki, their silverback gorilla, seemed to be having headaches.
Officials weren’t comfortable taking Rafiki out of the Colorado Springs zoo, driving him through town to a veterinarian for an exam — assuming they could have found one with the equipment to scan the head of a 450-pound gorilla.
“Somehow, they got wind that we had a mobile device,” says Elaine McDonald, a certified nuclear medicine technologist and Director of Imaging Services at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers. “So they contacted us and asked if we could come to him.”
Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers has maintained at least one mobile PET/CT scan unit, housed in a tractor trailer, since 2004. The device typically travels to Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers locations in the Denver metro area. But when Cheyenne Mountain called, RMCC agreed to expand those boundaries, and headed to Colorado Springs.
“We went down there and set up near the gorilla habitat,” McDonald recalls. Veterinarians and an anesthesiologist knocked out the rather confused and not altogether happy patient, and zoo staff helped load him onto the scanner bed. The table accommodated his weight just fine, McDonald says. “But he had these huge long arms,” that had to be held on the table.
With that accomplished, and with a large crowd gathered safely behind a glass partition to watch, “we scanned his head, which was massive,” but fit through the device’s doughnut-hole-like opening, McDonald says.
Diagnostic Scans Save the Day with mobile PET/CT scan unit
The mobile PET/CT scan unit offers two types of scans:
- A positron emission tomography, or PET, scan produces detailed three-dimensional images inside the body.
- A computed tomography, or CT scan uses a computer and X-rays to produce cross-sectional images of body tissues and organs. RMCC uses the high-tech imagery to precisely pinpoint tumors, which helps guide oncologists in patient treatment.
Rafiki’s images revealed a massive infection in his mastoid, an area of the skull behind the ear. In humans, mastoiditis causes severe headaches and fever, and probably was doing likewise in Rafiki.
“We were able to share the findings with a surgeon, who created a sort of temporary surgical suite at the zoo, and went in and operated on him,” McDonald says.
The CT scan, and surgery, likely saved Rafiki’s life. Since then, RMCC and its diagnostic device on wheels have come to the aid of penguins, a guinea pig, orangutans, an antelope, an Arctic fox, an emu, and even a lion, in Colorado Springs and Denver.
Getting these animals through the scanner poses logistical conundrums, “and it certainly is a challenge to get them anesthetized,” McDonald says. On the other hand, “They never get mad and they never complain.”
While RMCC is happy to work with zoos to help animals — and always careful to thoroughly clean and sterilize all the equipment afterward — they can only accommodate creatures who fit in the device, McDonald says.
“I’m afraid elephants are out of luck.”