Topeka Zookeeper Returning to Work After Tiger Attack

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Jill Chadwick

News Director

Office: (913) 588-5013

Cell: (913) 223-3974


           It’s a day she’ll never forget. April 20th, 2019. The day Topeka zookeeper Kristyn Hayden Ortega accidently found herself in the same cage with Sanjeev, a 7-year-old 400-pound Sumatran tiger. The huge cat attacked Ortega, leaving her with wounds on her head, neck back and arm. After her co-workers managed to lure Sanjeev away, an ambulance rushed Ortega to a nearby hospital. With quick medical care, she made a great recovery. But after six months, some of her nerves had not recovered.

            She came to The University of Kansas Health System, and plastic surgeon Dr. Ryan Endress. He proposed a very technically challenging procedure to take nerves from other parts of Ortega’s body and transfer them to the muscles that were not working. Dr. Endress says The University of Kansas Health System is the only hospital in the region that can perform such a high-pressure operation. Each nerve is only a couple of millimeters in diameter and the goal is to get the transferred nerve cells to grow together with the severed ones. Endress says he only has one shot at getting it right, and if it doesn’t work, Ortega would never regain arm function. He did the procedure last fall, and it was a success. After several months of recovery Ortega has been able to return to the Topeka zoo.

            In the video, Dr. Ryan Endress describes the type of injuries Ortega suffered…he says they were like what many trauma patients suffer after a high-speed motorcycle crash or a stabbing. He explains how he does the procedure under a microscope and how after the procedure, Ortega’s brain essentially must rewire itself. He says, for example, one of the nerves that flexes a finger now will be flexing her elbow.

            Also in the video, Kristyn Hayden Ortega talks about what she remembers from the attack. She describes her limitations from the nerve damage, and what she hopes to be able to do once the nerve transfer has completely taken effect. And she says she doesn’t blame Sanjiv for the attack. She says he’s a great cat.

            The video also shows TV friendly video of the surgery.