Durham surgeon stitches sea turtles back together
Elena Boffetta firstname.lastname@example.org
Just as surgeon Mike Grafinger was putting in the final sutures, his patient started to wake up.
“This, unfortunately, is the reality of sea turtle anesthesia,” N.C. Aquariums veterinarian Emily Christiansen said.
After the turtle lost consciousness again, Grafinger finished repairing its lacerated flipper. He carefully threaded a metal wire back and forth between the torn pieces, suturing them together to heal. Finally, he sewed pieces of thin, red rubber tubing in a ring around the bloody tear to serve as a sort of splint.
“It looks a little Frankensteinian,” said Sharon Zeigler, marketing director for Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital.
Nearly 2,000 sea turtles washed up on North Carolina shores in January, compared to the 100 or 200 found on shore in years past. The turtles had been feeding in shallow waters when temperatures suddenly dropped.
Unable to return to warmer, deeper water in time, they were cold stunned, a condition similar to hypothermia.
‘He got really lucky’
Volunteers helped rescue the turtles, which were taken to facilities around the state for rehabilitation. Most were green sea turtles, a threatened species in this region.
“In January, they were operating on a few hours a sleep a night and working with turtles 24/7,” said Stasia Bembenek Bailey, a veterinarian training with the N.C. Aquariums system. ”
About 600 of the original 2,000 have already been released, Christiansen said, with fewer than 100 in rehab. Three were taken to the Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital on Tuesday for treatment.
The first has paralyzed rear flippers. Christiansen said she might try acupuncture. The second had a hole in his shell. The hospital staff did a CAT scan and found that the wound just missed the spinal cord.
“One millimeter over and he wouldn’t be able to move, so he got really lucky,” Grafinger said. He expects the turtle to recover in several weeks.
The third turtle had a lacerated front flipper. It couldn’t have come to a better place.
Grafinger, co-owner of the hospital, pioneered sea turtle flipper repair during his residency in 2005. The standard treatment for torn flippers had been amputation. “The way I give back is to do stuff like this,” he said.
Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital is a 24-hour emergency facility for cats and dogs, but the hospital periodically teams up with N.C. Aquariums, CLAWS, Inc. and the Conservators Center in Burlington to care for wild and exotic animals.
Along with the three turtles receiving treatment, Christiansen had brought seven others with her from Greensboro and Charlotte that are ready to be released. She hopes a U.S. Coast Guard boat will be able to take them out to warm waters Monday.
“They have a kind of Slip’N Slide for turtles off of the boat,” she said.
The surgery took just over an hour. At the end Grafinger carefully inspected his work. The surgery had gone well, but he was worried the sutures might tear.
Sure enough, as the turtle woke up, it began fiercely flapping its front limbs. Bembenek Bailey moved quickly to hold its newly repaired flipper in place.
“Think it’ll hold up?” he asked Christiansen. “The problem is you can’t restrict these guys.”
“Do sea turtles ever do what we want them to do?” she answered.