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MUSC aids rare sea turtle suffering from head injury

by Melissa Lacas
Public Relations
Myrtle was swimming along, minding his own business when something badly banged up his head last fall. The 6-pound Kemp’s Ridley turtle would have died without his rescue and treatment by MUSC and the Sea Turtle Hospital of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston.
The medical adventure for Myrtle the Turtle, due to the slash on his face, was guided by the staff veterinarian at the S.C. Aquarium. The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle is one of the smallest known sea turtles and the most endangered among all marine turtles.
Dr. Edward Jauch holds his new favorite patient.  “Myrtle was a nice turtle who tolerated the MRI better than most of our patients.” Jauch said. Dr. Aquilla Turk and Dr. Paul Morgan were also on the MRI team that gave Myrtle his first MRI.

“The cause of the trauma is unknown and Myrtle isn’t talking,” quipped Shane Boylan, DVM, S.C. Aquarium staff veterinarian. Staff suspect a boat propeller struck Myrtle’s head.
“The damage completely destroyed the left nasal cavity and rhamphotheca, which is the left side of the ‘beak’,” Boylan said.
When Myrtle was brought into the turtle hospital, Boylan was unsure of the success rate for survival for the little fellow. “The avascular nature of the wound did not leave much room for hope.”
Although it was a surgical risk given Myrtle’s trauma and blood loss, he was anesthetized upon arrival at the turtle hospital to alleviate pain and to try to save as much tissue and bone as possible, Boylan said. He used surgical wire to help juxtapose the remaining fragments of Myrtle’s cranium.
The surgery was a success, but as Myrtle’s head injury continued to heal, something was amiss. Trauma can create positive buoyancy in sea turtles due to a number of reasons such as infections leading to gas in distended intestines, tears in the lungs releasing gas to the coelom (a fluid-filled cavity found in certain animals), and idiopathic hyper-inflation. In other words, the trauma created gas in his turtle body, which disrupted his natural ability to dive and stay submerged long enough to get food.
Myrtle, a 6-pound endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, receives an MRI at MUSC’s Center for Advanced Imaging Research on March 13. Myrtle suffers from head trauma and was rescued by the S.C. Aquarium last fall.
Radiographic detail could not delineate between hyper-inflated lungs or coelomically-trapped gas. Myrtle needed an MRI to determine the location of the gas so Boylan could determine the best approach, but since  the Turtle Hospital isn’t equipped with MRIs,  they turned to MUSC for help.
On March 13, MUSC administered an MRI on the turtle using its new Siemens 3T Trio scanner housed in the university hospital’s Center for Advanced Imaging Research.
Emergency Medicine’s Edward Jauch, M.D., and radiologists Aquilla Turk, D.O., and Paul S. Morgan, Ph.D., formed the MRI team on the unusual patient.
“Myrtle was a nice turtle who tolerated the MRI better than most of our patients,” Jauch admitted. “Luckily, these are small creatures and once out of the water, they are very docile. Their hearing is adapted to a different environment, so MRI sounds will likely not bother it once acclimated.”
The size and shape of the turtle made scanning him easier, the radiologists said.
“Fortunately, the turtle was a similar size to a human head and so was extremely compatible with the MRI scanner,” Morgan said. “Myrtle also stayed very still, which helped us take some detailed pictures.”
The MRI was instrumental in localizing the buoyancy to the lungs, and revealed the positive buoyancy is not due to internal trapped gas. This discovery avoided the need for surgical exploration, Boylan said.
“MUSC has been fantastic in lending their time and resources to helping this endangered Kemp’s Ridley,” he added. “We really appreciate all the effort.”
To account for his over-buoyancy, Boylan and his team of marine experts outfitted Myrtle with a system of weights that are enough to enable him to control his dives to hunt for food, but not so heavy that he can’t come up for air.
“His recovery has been nothing short of remarkable,” Boylan reported. “Myrtle, or ‘Tony Montana’ as I respectfully call him due to his new facial feature, has been undergoing weight belt therapy for a few months. There is mild improvement in his diving ability, but this type of therapy can take months.”
To learn more, and keep up with the progress and therapy of Myrtle and his other recovering marine friends at the S.C. Aquarium, visit Myrtle’s blog at


Friday, March 27, 2009

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