Surgery on a Sea Turtle

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I’m going to start this blog entry with some warnings.  First, it’s going to be sappy and emotional.  It’s about something that is dear to my heart and when something is dear to my heart, the sap runs out unfettered.  Second, it doesn’t have a happy ending.  It tried to have a happy ending.  There were a whole lot of people pulling for a happy ending.  But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, or how much you want something, it just isn’t meant to be.  And last, it is graphic.  And I mean that in the sense of visually graphic. 

This blog is about a sea turtle.  Someone on a boat saw her – she was unable to submerge and swimming in circles.  They realized she was in trouble, so they caught her and she eventually ended up at a place where she could get help.  She was taken to Jack Rudloe at the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab.   Mr. Rudloe called Dr. Norm Griggs and asked him to come take a look at her.

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She was a big girl.  Jack estimated her to be around 6 years old.  And she was in serious trouble.

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Dr. Norm examined her.  She had a terribly prolapsed cloaca.  When I say terribly, I mean it.  It wasn’t slightly prolapsed or moderately prolapsed, it was terribly prolapsed.  (Just trying to prepare you for the pictures coming up a little later in the blog.)

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The cloaca is the canal at the hind end of the turtle that everything comes through; urine, feces and even eggs when she lays them.  Dr. Norm and Mr. Rudloe decided the best thing to do was to take her back to the clinic for some X-rays.  Something had to cause the prolapse and if they were going to save this turtle’s life, they needed to find out what.

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She was a very sick, very weak girl.  I have had a lot of expereince with pain in the last few years and I could see by the way she hung her head and the dullness in her eyes that she was in pain – and had been that way for a long while.  Constant and unrelenting pain can wear you down and even break you.  I felt this turtle was close to giving up, so at this point, I almost decided to go home rather than go with Dr. Norm back to the clinic.  I have little tolerance for pain these days and watching animals that are sick, injured or in pain is difficult – very difficult, but something compelled me to follow. 

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Once back at the clinic, she was weighed.  (38.8 pounds)

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And X-rayed. 

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The X-rays showed Dr. Norm enough to know that if he didn’t do something, the turtle was going to die.  She was weak and might not survive the stress of surgery, but without it, she had no chance.  With it, well, there was at least hope.  She was prepped for surgery.

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Dr. Norm’s wife, Melody is his surgical assistant and anesthesiologist.  Watching as the turtle was put under was fascinating.  Turtles can hold their breath an awfully long time! 

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But she finally went under.

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Dr. Norm examines the prolapsed cloaca.

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He would need to fix the cloaca, but he also needed to find out what caused it.  The only way to do that was to go in and check for a blockage in her intestines.  The black you see in the intestines in the picture below is compacted poo.  Lots and lots and lots of poo!  This poor girl had went many, many days, possibly even weeks without being able to ‘go.’ 

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It was packed in there so thick and solid.  And what part of her intestines that wasn’t filled with poo was filled with gas.  Lots and lots of gas.  So much gas that she was unable to submerge.  No one knows for sure how long she floated out there before someone finally found her!

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Dr. Norm made an incision and cleaned out as much of the poo as he could.  When he cut into the intestine and the gas was finally released, I expected to be chased from the room by a horrible smell.  I was surprised when it turned out to be quite mild.  No worse than maybe some fresh horse droppings. 

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After most of the poo was removed from the intestines, they were cleaned and the incision was stitched back together.

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Then the intestines were returned to where they belonged and the main incision was closed.

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She had lots of barnacles all over her and some of them got a good, close-up view of the surgery.

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Then it was time to address the cloaca.  There was no way she would ever be able to pass anything through that thing in the condition it was in, so Dr. Norm bascially had to make her a new one.  She went from looking like this:

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To this:

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Then she was brought out of anesthesia.  And it became a waiting game.

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This is the part that is hard.  She didn’t make it.  Do I regret my decision to go to the clinic instead of going home?  No, I don’t.  How I prayed for a different outcome and how my heart broke at her passing, but being able to be so close to such a magnificent creature is an experience I will never forget.  To be able to place my hands on her back, to look her in the eye and try to convey to her that we were trying to help, and to hold her hand in mine…you know, the front flippers on a sea turtle are very much like a human hand.  Dr. Norm showed me the bones that make up the fingers, knuckles, and wrist.  Once I felt those, it became very much like holding someone’s hand.  It was nothing short of amazing.  She was nothing short of amazing. The sea is dimished without her.

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I am adding links to the video clips of the surgery below.  Condensing close to 3 hours down to 20 minutes was difficult, but I think I managed to capture the essence of the surgery. Unfortunately, it was so long, it had to be posted in three parts.   I urge you to allow yourself the time to view them all.  I think the least we can do for her is to view her final battle.  Also below is the last message I received from Dr. Norm about her.  I think it’s important to show that this man was, in every sense of the word, her champion.  He, and his wife Melody, did everything they possibly could for this amazing creature and they deeply felt her loss.  We can only wonder what would have happened if someone had found her sooner.

Please view the video here:

Part One:  ~~
Part Two  ~~
Part Three  ~~

Message from Dr. Norm:

Judy, I am truly touched by the caring and concern of these people and, of course, you.  I often feel a deep connection to some of my patients.   The wild ones touch me the most.  I am sorry to say that, this afternoon she found peace and crossed over the line.  I admire her incredible will to survive and I so wish I could have seen her sooner. After her death, I wanted to know the entire story that her body could tell me so Melody and I did a necropsy on her body.  Her energy reserves were completely gone, there was no fat anywhere in her body.  Her muscles were wasting because the protein in them was being used to keep her alive during her protracted illness. Her, once rock solid shell, was soft and pliable in places.  I am sure she has been fighting for months. Here is a breakdown, if you care to read it, of her illness.
 
At some point, probably over a month ago, she ingested something that she could not digest. Most likely it was a piece of trash as is so often the case with the marine turtles. She labored long and hard to pass the object after it passed through her intestinal track. It appears that she did pass it but due to the size and effort it took to expel it she prolapsed her rectal tissue in the process.  That was the mass that protruded from her anus when we first examined her.
 
Because she could no longer pass her stool through the constricted opening that the prolapse created, she began to get impacted with feces.  During the surgery we removed over 3 1/2 pounds of hard stool from her intestine.  We then resected and repaired her prolapse.  Her recovery from the anesthetic was very protracted even though she was only on inhalant anesthesia the whole time and kept very light.  Today she was so weak that she could barely raise her head. She had fought as long as anyone could ask her too. We took her to the clinic to tube feed her some baby food but she died on the way there.
 
I found that she also had what is called an intusseption higher in her intestines. That was probably caused by the intense straining to pass the feces that had accumulated in her.  The intusseption is difficult to describe but basically the intestine is pulled into itself like turning a sock inside out.  This blocked her bowel and caused the gas to accumulate that resulted in her being unable to dive and avoid capture. Sadly, it was too late to help her survive.
 
I did not see the intusseption during the surgery.  It was far into her shell and I did not suspect something else was wrong other than the complex mess we already had to deal with.  I sincerely don’t believe she would have survived me splitting her shell to get to the upper bowel to repair it but we will never know. 
 
Why don’t we take her back to the sea and send her home with some flowers and prayers? I think it would make me feel better.
Norm
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11 Responses to Surgery on a Sea Turtle

  1. Katrina K. says:

    This is one of the saddest things I have ever seen. I am so sorry you couldn’t save her. Bless you all for trying!

  2. Amber says:

    I couldn’t help but feel completely attached to this Turtle. You wrote from your heart, and made me feel like I was right there, with you, experiencing this myself. God gives and takes and I believe God took her to give you an opportunity to share her story with your readers. I wish people would stop and realize the trash they toss ends up in the water, and harms our sea life.

    Thank you for sharing her story.

  3. Cindy says:

    Ah Judy how sad that she could not have been found sooner and possibly saved. But thank you for sharing this even if it was very sad and brought tears to my eyes.

    Hugs,
    Cindy

  4. Fran says:

    OMG Judy….I’m so very sorry. What a gorgeous creature.

  5. May God bless the soul of this special being Emerald Star, and also each of you who do this incredible work to help so many animals. Thank you!

  6. Darline says:

    Oh, how sad and made me cry and then mad because it was swallowing trash from some damn careless human that caused the problem in the first place.

    I know how hard it must have been for you to prepare your blog, but I thank you for doing so.
    Darline

  7. Genie says:

    Judy,

    You have done a magnificent job (as usual) of the saga of the sea turtle. I almost felt like I was there with you, willing the poor lady to live. I am extremely sad that she did not make it, but still am very grateful to you for letting us share this experience.

    Thank you
    Genie

  8. Well done Judy. Your skills with the camera are most impressive. Thanks for telling the story, even as difficult as it was for you. I was proud of you during the surgery, you did very well under the circumstances. Perhaps next time we will succeed and cry like a bunch of babies when we give a marine turtle back to her world.

    Norm

  9. Chris says:

    Oh judy. I am so sorry for that precious turtle.

  10. Donna says:

    I am truly sorry too. She was a beautiful creature. This is horribly saddening and sickening.

  11. Burma says:

    Impossible to read without some tears. So glad you were there to hold its hand.
    Burma

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