Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Stranding Location: Charleston Harbor Shipping Channel, Charleston, SC
Arrival Date: 2/14/20
Weight: 5.7 lbs (2.61 kg)
During the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day, Valentine (Val for short) was sucked up in the hopper dredge that is currently dredging the Charleston Harbor Shipping Channel. She was found by observers aboard a hopper dredge. She was pulled up from about 45 feet deep, in sandy, muddy sediment. An observer transported her to the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Care Center around 9 am for emergency treatment.
Our biggest concern (one of many) was that Val could be suffering from decompression sickness because she was pulled up to surface level rapidly from a depth of 45 feet. Dr. Boylan immediately took her into CT to look for gas emboli in her organs, which would indicate decompression sickness that is life threatening if not treated quickly. While the images processed, she was given a full physical exam and we administered pain medication and sedation to help make her more comfortable. Val had a severe fracture along her spine, many abrasions and wounds, a fracture on her plastron, and her eyes were bleeding and full of sandy silt. Val was also missing her right rear flipper, but that appeared to be from previous trauma before the dredge. Dr. Boylan was able to diagnose decompression sickness using the CT imaging; she had large gas emboli (bubbles) in her kidneys, renal arteries, and around her intestines. The fracture on her shell also appeared to damage her spine. After administering fluids, antibiotics, vitamins, and cleaning her wounds, vet staff pulled blood and let her rest while we decided on a plan of action.
We quickly found a decompression chamber at the Veterinary Specialty Care Center in Mt. Pleasant, SC. Dr. Heather Moore spent an hour and a half with us treating Val in the chamber. When we got back to SCA, CT imaging showed little improvement in the size and number of the emboli. So, Val spent the night in an oxygen chamber we made from a Yeti cooler, that was donated to us from Yeti last year, to try oxygen therapy. Given the multiple fractures, gas emboli throughout various organs, and severe spinal trauma, Valentine’s prognosis is extremely poor.
February 15, 2020: Val was about the same the next morning, but CT imaging showed about an 80% improvement in the size and number of gas emboli. The oxygen therapy worked! We also injected stem cells directly into her damaged spinal cord to hopefully help speed up the healing process. She got a few more medications today, and spent the rest of the day in the oxygen chamber to hopefully get rid of the remaining gas bubbles. Val’s prognosis is poor and very guarded, so send good vibes her way! She needs our positive thoughts now, more than ever.
February 28, 2020: Over the past two weeks, Valentine has been our most critical patient and our vet team has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at her in an effort to save her. She spent the first several days receiving fluid therapy, oxygen therapy, received multiple CT scans, pain management drugs and daily bandage changes. We even used wound V.A.C® (vacuum assisted closure) therapy over her vertebral scute fractures to help remove silt, mud and other debris. This week, we tried Val out in a shallow water tank to make her feel more comfortable, but also to assess the use of her rear flipper. Val is already at a disadvantage due to the fact that she only has one rear flipper. We will need to give it some time to see if reducing the inflammation around the spinal injury, and introducing stem cells to the wound, will improve her condition. Currently, she is set up in a floating kiddie pool that is attached to the tank and allows her to be in filtered water. We are doing supervised swim therapy with her daily, but she is still too weak to be left in the tank without the kiddie pool. She is beginning to show a little interest in food, but not much. Her vision is still affected as her eyes are continuing to slough off what appears to be corneal tissue with remaining silt. We are hoping her vision will continue to improve as her eyes heal. Valentine is a fighter and we hope to see an improvement; however, given the extent of her injuries, her prognosis is still very poor and highly guarded.
March 15, 2020: Valentine has gotten a little stronger since our last update, but other than that there is very little change. She still has minimal use of her rear flipper, but she is trying to use it when she swims. We tried to increase her water level, but she didn’t do too well with it, so we still have it low. We are continuing to put her in the kiddie pool at night when she is weaker and more tired from swimming. She has started to eat well, and her eyesight has improved. Please continue to send all the good vibes her way, as her prognosis is still highly guarded.
April 1, 2020: Val is generally doing well these days! She still has trouble coordinating her three flippers to come up to breathe at the surface, but she is very slowly improving. She has not defecated significantly since her arrival, which is concerning since she has been eating so well. We have given Val several enemas in the past few weeks to attempt to get the fecal matter moving, or dislodge whatever the blockage could be. We did a CT on her recently to check on any potential changes in her spine as the fracture heals. There is a severely damaged vertebra where the spinal cord may be pinched. More diagnostic imaging and examinations will be needed in order to assess this better. In the meantime, we are water changing her tank daily to minimize risk of infection in the fracture, as well as continuing to feed her a healthy and nutritious diet. Although her prognosis is still heavily guarded, we are exploring all of the options we can muster to see how we can best help her out.
April 15, 2020: Valentine has been blowing it out the past two weeks! Shortly after our last update, she began defecating with more regularity which is extremely exciting. We found several pieces of marine debris in her fecal, but none of them caused us any great concern as they were all very small. This coincided with us increasing her water depth, so she now has to swim around a little more and test her skills at coming to the surface to breathe. She isn’t using her back flipper like normal and often uses the bottom intake, or the walls of the tank, to help her come up to breathe but it is a start! Recently our veterinarian debrided the wound on her shell to remove dead bone and tissue. Debriding is essential in the healing process as it removes the dead and dying material to make room for new healthy material or tissue to take its place. We are proud of how far Valentine has come in the past month, but she still has a very long road of recovery ahead of her and her prognosis is guarded.
May 1, 2020: Little Miss Valentine is nearly at a full tank of water! We were able to really ramp up the speed at which we increased her water depth over the past couple of weeks as Valentine became significantly stronger and more capable. She is able to eat, rest, breathe, and swim comfortably in all areas of the water column. We also debrided some of the dead tissue and bone from her carapace fracture, which will promote healing and positive tissue growth in the coming weeks. We are so proud of little Val!
May 15, 2020: Our little Val took a turn this week. Earlier in the week, staff noticed that Valentine was swimming a little slower than usual, but she ate great and was otherwise normal. She was closely monitored throughout the rest of the day. In the afternoon, she was observed having issues swimming with the left side of her body and began to have minimal usage of her left front flipper as well. Val was sedated for a CT scan and contrast study of her spine to determine what was causing this sudden change. Sure enough, the CT scans indicated that though the vertebral trauma healed well, it appears to be compressing the spinal cord again. We gave her medicine to help reduce the inflammation and let her rest in a waterbed overnight. The next day, we put her back in her tank but lowered the water level. Val seemed to have regained some of her ability to use both of her front flippers, but we are going to continue to monitor her carefully. If this issue persists, we may have to do another procedure to try to relieve the compression on the spinal cord. Valentine’s case has always had a highly guarded prognosis, given the severity of her injuries at admit, and we will continue to do all we can for her. Send all the positive vibes her way!