TAMPA — A struggling sea turtle's medical odyssey moved to downtown Tampa on Tuesday with a trip to a state-of-the-art University of South Florida training center for some serious diagnostic testing.
Freud, a 22-pound endangered green sea turtle, was found lethargic, bloated and covered in algae on Navarre Beach in the Panhandle in November 2012. He was treated at Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, but veterinarians there sent him to the Florida Aquarium in January for more advanced care.
On Tuesday, Freud made the trip from the Channelside aquarium to USF Health's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation. There, doctors and technicians prepared him for a computed tomography scan and examined his airway with a tiny video camera.
Kathy Heym, a veterinarian at the Florida Aquarium, called Freud a “floater,” a turtle unable to dive. The experts suspected that air was collecting in Freud's body outside of his lungs, an unfortunate situation that made him unusually buoyant.
“When he came in, the assumption was that he had a tear somewhere in one of his lungs,” said Heym. “He's full of air. … The thought is that the air is coming from his lungs somewhere into his body cavity.”
The CT scan at CAMLS, involving the most advanced medical equipment available, quickly demonstrated that air was indeed trapped in the vicinity of Freud's left lung. And when trauma surgeon and USF professor Luis Llerena discovered bubbling within Freud's airway, he may have pinpointed an area of concern.
Heym and Llerena said the next step would be to correlate the CT and the bronchoscopy findings. If the local experts feel confident they've found a lesion, the next step would be to bring in pulmonary experts and specialty surgeons to determine the best course of action.
“I'm cautiously optimistic about this turtle,” said Heym. “He's been doing fine, despite his lesion — eating, swimming. We just know this isn't something he can live with forever. He's already starting to have some problems as a result of it.”
Freud's condition puts pressure on his internal organs and has already led to the slight deformity of his shell, Heym said.
There are about 80,000 to 120,000 green sea turtle nests a year found in Florida, mostly along the east coast.
Determining the age and sex of a sea turtle is difficult. The experts use the “he” pronoun with Freud based solely on his name. They do not know the sex of the creature, and Heym put his age at 10 to 15 years, “give or take 10 years.”
“For sea turtles in Florida, almost all of those species are endangered, so every turtle counts,” she said. “That's the ultimate goal with all of these guys, to get them in, rehab them, and get them back out there so they can contribute to the turtle population going forward.”
It was the first time Llerena turned his skills to a sea turtle — “I do trauma all the time; I don't do turtles,” he quipped — but he said he was thrilled with the collaboration between USF Health and the Florida Aquarium.
“We were very excited about the call from the aquarium, and we galvanized a couple of forces that we have here,” he said.
A CT scan similar to the one Freud experienced might yield a $10,000 hospital bill for a human patient, but all of Tuesday's labor and equipment use was donated by USF Health.
“This turtle would have a really difficult time with us finding a solution if we didn't have this opportunity today,” Heym said.
“These guys have been so accommodating. ... Everything we could have asked for, anything we could have needed, we got. These guys are great.”