Darcy Doellman, RN (left) and Blake Gustafson, RN, with Fiona after their successful attempt at placing an IV catheter in 2017.

Vascular Access Team Celebrates Fiona’s 5th Birthday

Fiona the hippo, who is the most celebrated resident of the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, was born prematurely on January 24, 2017. She recently celebrated her 5th birthday with a virtual celebration at the zoo. Among the many celebrating her life were Cincinnati Children’s Vascular Access Team (VAT) clinical manager Darcy Doellman and fellow nurse Blake Gustafson.

The VAT is a team of nurses with specialized training and education with inserting vascular access devices such as IVs, midlines, and peripherally inserted central catheters (PICCs). The team provides this service both inpatient and outpatient for all age groups. The VAT is also a resource for IVs and central lines and provides education, monitoring, and complication management for these devices.

Doellman recalled the day five years ago when the zoo contacted her for help.

“An amazing piece of Fiona’s story is all the connections,” Doellman said. “A zoo employee’s child had been hospitalized at Cincinnati Children's the year before Fiona’s birth, and the child had an IV started from a VAT nurse using an ultrasound, a specialized camera to find veins. The employee remembered our work, and that led to the zoo reaching out to us.”

Because of her premature birth, Fiona had become dehydrated and in need of intravenous fluids. Zoo vets were able to get multiple IVs placed, but they would not stay in.

“We are still so grateful to the VAT nurses for giving Fiona that life-saving IV,” said Michelle Curley, communications director of the zoo. “They rushed right over when we called and saved the day. Because Fiona was cared for by people for the first few months of her life, she is very comfortable with humans and seems to enjoy interacting with them. She comes right up to the glass at the zoo exhibit, especially when someone points a camera at her!”

“Blake and I have been on the Vascular Access Team for several decades, so we have been shoulder-to-shoulder many times," Doellman said. “We felt very confident at the hospital packing up our supplies to head to the zoo. Driving over, we both paused and looked at each other and thought: Wait, we are dealing with a hippo! Reality set in.”

When the nurses arrived at the zoo, they quickly realized it was a very different situation.

“We are used to being in a sterile environment, but we walked into a space with cinder block walls, and Fiona was on the concrete floor,” Gustafson said. “We quickly adjusted.”

It took two attempts for the IV catheter to stay in. On the second try, Gustafson used a longer catheter in one of Fiona’s deep veins in her leg. Gustafson also sutured it so it would be more secure. Both nurses wondered if their plan would work.

“We were worried as Fiona was very pale, and she was on oxygen,” Gustafson said. “I didn’t know what a sick hippo looked like, but you do get caught up in the emotion. We wondered if she was going to survive.”

According to Doellman, they also used products for difficult IV lines on Fiona to make sure the catheter would adhere and not come off. If the hippo’s dressing got moist, the IV line would fall out.

The nurses’ plan worked. The zoo veterinarian staff were able to get life-saving fluids inside Fiona by the next day.

“Our time with Fiona was an hour and a half total, but we kept in touch every day to see how she was doing,” Doellman said. “The zoo team was with her 24/7 just like a newborn baby. They did everything possible to get her fluids, keep her warm, and protect the catheter. Their team was able to keep the catheter in for five days, which is a long time for a newborn baby. To have it in a hippo is even more amazing.”

Fiona weighed 29 pounds at birth, far below the typical 55 to 120 pounds for a baby hippopotamus. Today, Fiona has grown to a little over 1,800 pounds thanks to a diet of romaine lettuce, beet pulp, watermelon, hay, pineapple, apples cantaloupe and cucumber. She is a healthy hippo but is on the small size for her age, according to the zoo. Since that first visit with Fiona, the two nurses have followed her closely.

"I have every book, stuffed animal, calendar and ornament there is, so I definitely follow her,” Gustafson said.

“I have a grandson now who is 2, and we visit the zoo several times a month—and it’s neat watching him get excited about Fiona because we have books and stuffed animals at home,” Doellman said. “At Fiona’s exhibit, I stand back, and I feel like a proud mama to be part of the whole process, which has been great.”

Fiona also has made an impression on patient families at Cincinnati Children’s.

“In our NICU, so many of those parents say, ‘If Fiona can fight, I can fight.’ And it's amazing to see how many people have named their kids Fiona,” Gustafson said.

“That Blake and I were a part of that time in Fiona’s life, it makes me very proud,” Doellman said.

(Pictured) Blake Gustafson, RN, lays out everything she needs to insert an IV catheter.

A close-up of Fiona's hind leg once the catheter was in place.

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In Memoriam Hector Wong, MD 1963-2022