Thirteen months ago, it wasn't clear if anything could save the life of Andre the turtle -- let alone a trip to the orthodontist.
But brace yourself -- a severely-injured green sea turtle that suffered a broken shell after being hit by a boat will be set free on Aug. 3 thanks in part to the hard work of a Florida orthodontist.
Just over a year ago, the folks at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Jupiter, a nonprofit organization that rescues and rehabilitates the area's sea turtles, found Andre close to death after he suffered two massive injuries from boats that left a giant hole in his shell and exposed the inside of his body to the elements.
In fact, center veterinarian Dr. Nancy Mettee said the staff had to remove three pounds of sand from inside Andre's body.
"The worst part of it is that his lungs were exposed," Mettee told HuffPost Weird News in an interview earlier this year, adding that boat injuries account for as many as 25 percent of all turtle strandings in the area.
It's not just the propellers. Mettee says ships' hulls can be just as damaging.
When Andre first arrived at the Center, the prognosis for survival was bleak.
Not only did he have more than three pounds of sand in his innards, which weighed heavily on his organs, causing severe displacement and infection, but Andre also had a collapsed lung, pneumonia and a badly damaged shell.
However, he was able to avoid shell shock thanks to a few specialists including, of all things, an orthodontist.
"We needed something to create tension in some areas of the carapace [the upper shell] and movement in other areas," Mettee said. "Orthodontics has this effect within human skulls, so I thought application to a sea turtle's shell may have similar results."
To do this, Mettee contacted Dr. Alberto A. Vargas, who practices in the nearby city of Jupiter. Vargas jumped at the chance to treat the under-represented sea turtle community.
Plus, sea turtles like Andre are better patients than humans in some respects.
"He was very compliant and did what we asked him to," Vargas said earlier this year. "He doesn't move around. On the down side, he doesn't communicate very well."
The technique used by Vargas has been called "sea turtle orthodontics," but the technical term is "distraction osteogenesis," and works by using the forces of pushing and pulling to manipulate bone growth.
Mettee had been thinking about using orthodontics on sea turtles for a while, but decided in February that Andre was a perfect test case and contacted Vargas shortly thereafter.
The procedure, which utilizes expanders to help repair a turtle's shell, can be very economical, with each expander costing less than $5, Mettee said.
Attaching those expander was a problem, though, because a green sea turtle has a smooth waxy shell so the first attachments popped off -- just like that -- from the pressure, she said.
That was remedied by using UV light and dental ionomer, a glue-like substance that goes on like a paste and becomes rock-hard after it's cured under an ultraviolet light, she said.
Attaching the expanders took four hours, but the real work is in the day-to-day adjustments, which are about a quarter of a millimeter each day, and, on a good day, a whole millimeter.
Although complete closure is impossible, Vargas believes that Andre's hole will be down to just a few millimeters by the time he is set free Wednesday.
Andre also got some special treatment in other ways. He has the unique honor of being the first animal implanted with Strattice, a type of skin graft derived from pig skin. Basically, it's living tissue that gives skin cells a place to grow and is meant to fill in cavities.
Kinetic Concepts, the San Antonio-based creators of Strattice, also gave Andre something called V.A.C. Therapy, which is short for “vacuum assisted closure,” and is similar to a wound dressing that is hooked up to a small vacuum that pulls the fluid from the wound and promotes healing by pulling the ends of the wounds together.
"We were charting new territory here," Mettee said. "We knew Strattice was highly effective in human patients, but Andre’s wounds were unique and severe. It's clear that Strattice, along with the use of V.A.C. Therapy, saved Andre’s life."
It's not easy convincing experts trained in human medicine to adapt their knowledge to turtles, but Mettee has learned the secret to shmoozing medical professionals over the years.
"All it takes is to find the one person who loves turtles and, once you do, it's magical," she revealed to HuffPost Weird News.
Now that Andre is well enough to be set free, Vargas is bringing both his family and his staff to wish the turtle bon voyage off the shores of Jupiter, Fla.
"It feels good, especially knowing that he's a good candidate for breeding," he said. "A lot of us grew up here and the turtles are part of the community, so this is a good thing."
However, even though this whole rehabilitation process has been directed by Mettee, she admits she might not be able to be there at the final moments.
Freeing the turtles may be the object, but Mettee says the actual moment conjures bittersweet feelings.
"It's a dangerous work out there for turtles," she said. "As hard as we work, we can't protect them."
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