Nothing fosters an appreciation for life like a brush, or two, with death.

Life Endagered - Spring 2006

 It’s every parent’s nightmare: Your child suddenly spikes a fever, and there’s nothing you can do to bring it down. You rush to the nearest hospital, but the doctors child suddenly spikes a fever, and there’s nothing you can do to bring it down. You rush to the nearest hospital, but the doctors you what’s wrong.

 That’s what happened to Suzi and Jack Hanna in 1977 when their daughter, Julie ’97, was two years old. They took her to Children’s Hospital in Knoxville, Tenn., and had to wait two agonizing days for a diagnosis. When it came back, the nightmare only intensified: Julie had leukemia. By that time, she also had pneumonia and a staph infection. Take her to St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, the doctors said. Take her as fast as you can.

 St. Jude’s was 450 miles from Knoxville, and Julie was dangerously weak. A family friend flew them across the state, which may have saved her life. For the next two months, the helpless, bewildered toddler would see her parents only from behind the glass of an isolation unit, which would enable her immune system to regain strength.

 Doctors at St. Jude’s diagnosed acute lymphacytic leukemia. In the 1960s, children simply didn’t survive the disease. By the ’70s, some experimental treatments were available, but remission was rare. Three protocols were in use at St. Jude’s when Julie arrived; by lottery, she drew the most intensive, combining chemotherapy, massive doses of radiation to the chest and head, and spinal injections. There were 12 patients on Julie’s floor. Two survived.

 Julie’s treatments continued for the next four years. During that time, her family moved to Ohio, when Jack became director of the then-beleaguered Columbus Zoo. (Yes, he is that Jack Hanna, the one you’ve seen on TV, who steered the zoo into the national spotlight.) Ironically, because the treatments depressed Julie’s immune system, the young animal lover Julie couldn’t be around animals for a time. The cranial radiation slightly stunted Julie’s growth (at five feet tall, she’s petite in a family that averages six). It also affected some learning capabilities, but it was nothing Julie couldn’t overcome with disciplined study habits.

 In Jack’s 1989 autobiography, photos show Julie growing from a solemn three-year-old to a squirming, ponytailed youngster, to an awkward teen smiling shyly at the camera. Having the lens always pointed in her direction was normal for a child with a world-famous father, and Julie continued on through a relatively normal childhood.

 Then, in 1995, the Hanna family’s nightmares started all over again. Julie was a Denison sophomore, in England for May Term, when she began waking early in the morning, throwing up, and feeling very tired. When she came back to the States, her doctor reassured her: “You know, Julie, some parents just worry, and you happen to have parents who worry.” But the symptoms persisted, and her father called her oncologist at Children’s directly. When the doctor heard her symptoms, he immediately suspected cranial pressure and ordered CAT scans and MRIs. The family had barely returned home from the tests when the phone rang: Julie had a massive tumor and needed to get back to the hospital at once.

 That was on a Friday, and the hospital didn’t perform surgeries on the weekend. To relieve the pressure on her brain, Julie was given an anti-seizure medication, then released. “It’s really no big deal,” she told friends, downplaying the danger of the surgery. But she and her parents knew better; there was a good chance she could be paralyzed—or not survive. “I remember being in the car with my dad, driving back to Children’s, thinking I might be a vegetable by the time I got out.”

 The doctors knew from the tests that the tumor was large and wrapped around the main vessel in the front of Julie’s brain. They didn’t expect to remove it completely. Once they got in, they found that it had pushed the right half of her brain back, Julie says. “They couldn’t believe that I was still walking and hadn’t had a seizure.” But they were able to take all of it out. And the tumor was benign.

 While she was recuperating in the hospital, Julie heard that another patient, a small child, had died. “I thought, ‘Why me? Why did I get to survive and he didn’t?’”

 Leukemia treatments have changed radically since the ’70s, in part because of the long-term effects of the early protocols. “I was the fifth leukemia patient [who had been treated] at Columbus Children’s Hospital to develop a brain tumor,” Julie says. “The other four were malignant.” Today, her leukemia is in remission, and there have been no signs of the tumor returning.

 The Columbus Zoo Promotions Department is located in a tidy, unobtrusive building tucked well out of the way of the zoo’s casual visitors. The staff room is bright, airy, and well-lit, dominated by a large wall calendar detailing the travel schedule for the month; it’s crowded with multiple commitments for each day. The room looks not unlike a large, functional kitchen, with countertops and cabinets, a full-sized refrigerator, microwave, washer, and dryer. Open the refrigerator door, though, and you’ll find mealworms and crickets, plus Dallas Crown, a meat mixture for carnivores. Then you notice that across the room is a small refrigerator labeled “For human food only.”

 This facility serves as home to a pair of cheetahs, a cougar, two black-footed penguins, a palm civet (of the mongoose family), and a small, exotic host of other furred, feathered, and scaled creatures. These animals travel around the country with promotions staff members who serve as ambassadors of the zoo.

 Julie is part of that team, and when she’s not out conducting animal shows or talking about zoo programs, she spends most of her waking hours here. She goes about her work with a balance of playfulness and professionalism. One moment she’s cuddling and schmoozing her animal friends, the next deftly attending to their physical care or planning details of the next trip with her coworkers. “You don’t need a certain degree; you learn it on the job,” Julie explains. “What it comes down to is love and patience.”

 The job very well could have been created with Julie in mind. Gentle, genuine, and generous, she has no trouble speaking to large groups of people (for the Leukemia Society and American Cancer Society as well as the zoo). But she seems most comfortable one-on-one. She’s gracious and unfailingly patient with a visitor, giving no sign that she has any other demands on her time. It would have been easy to succumb to the seduction of being the baby, the center of attention because of her illnesses. Instead, she has chosen to focus on the needs of others.

 Perhaps this is the influence of her parents; perhaps it is the awareness that nature does not play favorites. She grew up, after all, in a family that understands better than most the fragility of all life on earth. By working at the zoo, Julie stands constantly in the shadow of mortality. Mentally, she understands that the animals she nurtures will probably die before she does. But emotionally, that only makes her fight that much harder for them.

 The summer after her brain surgery, three baby leopards arrived to be raised in the zoo nursery. One was Satcha, a snow leopard—an endangered species that inhabits the mountainous regions of Central Asia. Hunted for their bones, which are prized in Chinese medicine, there may be only 4,500 snow leopards left in the wild. The terrain is so inaccessible that obtaining an exact count is impossible, but conservationists believe that without protection, the species may become extinct. Worse, snow leopards are considered an “indicator species,” critical to keeping the ecosystem of its habitat in balance. If the snow leopard population disappears, the rest of the native species are at risk as well.

 After Satcha’s first examination, Julie overheard the zoo’s vet say, “He has about a 20 to 30 percent chance of living. Maybe with a lot of TLC and unstressful situations, he might make it.” Satcha had pectus excavatum—a concave chest wall. The deformity pressed his heart against his lungs; he would take two small steps and be totally out of breath. He was only a few weeks old, and something about his plight resonated with Julie. Despite her parents’ concerns about her own health, she insisted on nurturing him 24/7, administering antibiotics, feeding him, sleeping with him. The only time she left him was to attend class. When she casually mentioned Satcha to her neurosurgeon at Children’s, he arranged for the hospital specialist in human pectus excavatum to see Satcha. Five or six doctors examined the tiny patient, taking X-rays, to see if they could offer any assistance.

 “He was a special little guy,” Julie recalls. “I thought, ‘There’s no way I would have been able to make it through my surgery if I hadn’t had my family and friends behind me. They didn’t give up on me, so I’m not going to give up on him.’” Satcha not only survived; he has sired at least two litters. Since then, Julie has nurtured many more zoo babies that needed special care, feeling each time that in a small way, she may be helping a species make a comeback.

 Maintaining nature’s delicate balance, in the face of human ignorance or deliberate malfeasance, is a daunting task. But the stakes are high and the value of all life is precious, Julie knows. “When other species are endangered—and they are—we’re next.”

 

Published March 2006