Dr. Daniel Chan has worked on plenty of teenage patients – just not one with 2-in. claws that could tear him to shreds. Still, when the dentist got a call to help perform a root canal on Edwina, a friendly 15-year-old Malayan sun bear at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, he jumped at the chance.
On Aug. 1, Chan joined three dentists, two veterinarians, two surgical nurses, a radiologist, a sonogram specialist, two zookeepers and several zoo staffers to fix Edwina’s left front canine tooth, which had somehow been sheared off to the gum. “It’s very exciting to go in there and do it, but it is also pretty tricky,” says Chan, associate dean of clinical services at the University of Washington’s School of Dentistry. “We have to use instruments that are much bigger than the ones we’re used to.”
Brought over from Malaysia in 1996 in a species-saving effort, Edwina might not be the biggest bear around– she stands about 4 feet tall and weighs 102 lbs., average for Malayan sun bears – but her 3-in. teeth are four or five times longer than a human tooth. Chan watched as staffers carried a groggy Edwina into an operating theater at the zoo. Already sedated, she was intubated and prepped for surgery. First, a root canal specialist, Dr. Edmund Kwan, used a standard high-speed turbine-engine drill to open up the tooth. “Then I used a veterinary-sized root canal file to get down into it,” says Kwan, who runs a private practice in Tukwila, Wash. “[The tooth] is almost three times longer than normal.”
Kwan finished up the root canal and gave way to Chan, who used a metal-alloy amalgam–the most durable kind of filling available–to seal up the tooth. “Wild animals do a lot more gnawing and heavy chewing than we do,” he says, “so we had to use something really resistant.”
And time was of the essence in doing the surgery. While the dentists were working, vets and staffers raced around like a NASCAR pit crew performing other procedures–blood samples, X-rays, nail clippings–to take advantage of the brief window of sedation. “At one point the vet told us that if Edwina starts to move, quickly vacate the premises,” says Chan. “We knew he was joking, but even so, when you’re close to these wild animals you really get a sense of their power.”
Post-procedure, Edwina is doing just fine. She’s missing one tooth, but still has plenty of others she can use to rip up branches and root out tasty insects. For the dentists who worked on her, the experience was a welcome and eye-opening change of pace.
“For me the thrill is getting to touch these wild endangered animals, which few people ever get to do,” says Kwan. “I gave one of Edwina’s muscles a little squeeze and I looked at her amazing claws. You realize all wild animals are pretty darn tough. Even the cute little ones can tear you up pretty good if they want to. You don’t want to mix it up with a wild, angry squirrel.”
Dr. Chan, too, gives Edwina high marks as a patient–no questions, no complaining! “With humans there’s a lot of explaining, then the procedure, then more explaining in the post-op,” he says. “But with Edwina it was just in and out. I’m thinking I’d like to do more of these kinds of jobs. Maybe a dolphin next time.”
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