It's been two long years of rehabilitation for a female sea turtle named Kahuna, but the effort may have paid off because, as of July , she will be a free woman with nothing but the shell on her back.
In August, 2010, Kahuna was found near Hutchinson Island in South Florida with nearly 60 percent of her front left flipper missing and several deep lacerations on her right front flipper; injuries that required antibiotics, vitamins and surgery.
She was taken to the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, Fla., to be treated, but, despite the best efforts of the staff vets, things looked pretty bad for Kahuna because osteomyelitis, a type of unresolved bone infection, was present in both front flippers, causing the turtle to become unstable without antibiotics, according to LMC Staff Veterinarian, Dr. Nancy Mettee.
"We would take her off medication the drugs and she'd be fine for a few weeks, but then we'd have a problem with her blood work or her using flippers," Mettee told The Huffington Post.
But thanks to hyperbaric therapy, a treatment made famous by Michael Jackson, Kahuna has been able to be rehabilitated to the point where she is finally able to hunt and capture food on her own.
The therapy utilizes pure oxygen inside a chamber pressurized higher than sea level pressure and approximately three times higher than normal air pressure. The process works through pure oxygen being carried by the patients’ blood and delivered throughout its body, which stimulates the release of substances called growth factors and stem cells, promoting healing.
"It's been around in humans for more than 100 years," Mettee said. "But this is the first time it's been used on a sea turtle. It's been successful enough that we think it could be used in other sea turtles with bone infections."
Because it was never tried on turtles before Kahuna, Mettee and the other vets had to use a chamber specially designed for horses.
It took a little adjustment on Kahuna's part.
"Her body is designed to dive deep," Mettee said. "In fact, a session in the chamber is called 'a dive' because the pressure is so intense. When she was adjusting to the pressure changes, she'd be stressed, but when we got to the target pressure, she'd relax."
Kahuna went to the equine center 18 times in all, which required employees to lift the 183-pound sea turtle into a box and drive her to the chamber about 45 minutes away.
"Veterinarians [monitored] her progress to adjust the treatments accordingly," Loggerhead Marinelife Center spokeswoman Brittany Miller told The Huffington Post in June, 2011. "Based on diagnostics, the treatments could continue for any length of time. It's hard to say because this is experimental with sea turtles."
"There is no standard sea turtle protocol published for hyperbaric oxygen treatments," Miller explained. "Our treatment plan is loosely based on the hyperbaric oxygen treatments that have successfully worked on other animal species."
It has worked out well enough that Kahuna will be released into the wild on July 7, depending on her final bloodwork results as well as weather and surf conditions.
The event will be a big day for Kahuna, but a bittersweet day for Mettee, who usually avoids the releases because they affect her emotionally.
"We will have an opportunity to say goodbye privately the night before," she said.