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Florida Aquarium, USF team to solve a sea turtle's medical mystery


Freud eats like a champ, but that's not why he seems ready to burst his shell.

Nobody knows, really, why Freud takes on so much air that he can't dive for food even when he tries his best. Why all he can do is float.

"He looks pretty beefy," said Dr. Kathy Heym, veterinarian at the Florida Aquarium, "but that's all air."

Freud, an endangered juvenile green sea turtle, washed up on a Panhandle beach about a year ago, bloated and covered in algae but with no visible wounds. A passer-by carried him to Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City, where workers couldn't figure out what was wrong with him. In January, Freud was sent to live at Florida Aquarium.

Aquarium staff suspected a tear in his lungs. Perhaps a heavy impact had jostled his lungs, which sit right under his shell. They examined CT scans. They even tried laparoscopic surgery. But they couldn't tell where the tear might be. Without a diagnosis, there was no way to help Freud the floater.

"We were like, 'Okay, what's next?' " said Heym.

What was next was the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, called CAMLS, in downtown Tampa.

CAMLS is where doctors and others in the medical field go to perfect their skills. But its advanced imaging equipment also could be just what the aquarium needed to diagnose Freud's problem.

Freud, a 22-pounder, was lightly sedated Tuesday and unceremoniously secured in a gray square container, which a Ford van transported to CAMLS.

Placed on an operating table, Freud cast sidelong glances as veterinary technician Susan Coy prepped him for his scan and his bronchoscopy, a procedure that allows doctors to look into the airways of his lungs. At one point, he banged his front flippers on the table, looking like an angry little bald man on the verge of a nap.

"This is the joy of sea turtle medicine, guys," Heym told reporters.

Everyone spoke in hushed voices as Freud was wheeled into the imaging room. The CT machine, which was adjusted to release radiation suitable for a child, produced a walnut-like image, black on the top and gray on the bottom. The black represented air.

But that didn't provide any particular insight. So the team proceeded with the bronchoscopy, which revealed air bubbles in his lower left lung. Now they had something to work with.

The next step is to let veterinary radiologists view the results and recommend a course of treatment.

Aquarium officials said they were hopeful a surgical option to repair the leak might be available. And if that surgery works, and Freud can dive like the rest of his kin, he could be released.

Even if medicine can one day resolve issues about his lungs, other questions remain. For one, aquarium staff weren't sure how Freud got his name. And Freud is not even old enough for them to tell whether he's a "he" at all, though they took the liberty of calling him one. Freud may have more to contemplate.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at or (813) 226-3374.

Florida Aquarium, USF team to solve a sea turtle's medical mystery 12/10/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 9:05pm]
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