Doctors operated on an unusual patient, when they came to the rescue of a dolphin that had swallowed a toy volleyball.

A medical team removed the obstruction from the stomach of five-year-old Jiang Bo in Nanjing in east China’s Jiangsu Province, after a long-armed basketball player who volunteered to help failed to reach it.

The procedure at the No. 2 Hospital Affiliated to Nanjing Medical University lasted three hours, with the animal sedated, officials said.

The obstruction placed the aquatic mammal’s life at risk, but medical staff were reluctant to cut open the animal to reach it, concerned about how the wound would heal. Doctors managed to drill a hole in the ball and tried to pull it out after attaching a length of cord.

But just when this seemed likely to succeed, the cord broke. Undaunted, the veterinary team tried again, this time using medical steel wire, and finally managed to yank out the ball.

The procedure had been expected to take less than 30 minutes, but in the event lasted three hours.

“We can say that Jiang Bo’s life is no longer at risk,” said an official with the aquarium, surnamed Meng. “But of course he will require long-term recovery treatment. We’ll give him post-operation care and adjust his diet.”

Jiang Bo was returned to the aquarium. Before turning to doctors, the aquarium had made an appeal for people with long arms to reach down into the dolphin’s stomach to retrieve the ball.

This strategy has been used successfully in similar incidents elsewhere.

Meng Da, a professional basketball player with a Jiangsu Province club, rushed to the aquarium on Wednesday, but his efforts were in vain.

Although 1.95-metres tall, Meng couldn’t quite reach the ball. 2.26-metre tall Zhang Mengyong, the tallest man in the province, was on standby to make an attempt, should the doctors have failed.

Jiang Bo swallowed the ball while playing with it. Staff saw him drag the ball deep down into the pool, but when he resurfaced, it was gone.

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