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North Carolina Turtle Surgery: Endangered Animal Undergoes Risky Procedure

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A team of 10 doctors and their assistants crowd around an operating table. An anesthesiologist warns Dr. Greg Lewbart that his patient's heart rate has dropped to 35 beats per minute. But that's a good rate, the doctor says, for a seven-pound endangered sea turtle.

Veterinarians successfully completed experimental skull surgery on a green sea turtle Thursday at N.C. State University in Raleigh. They say the turtle, which is too young to easily tell its gender, needed the operation to close a three-inch gash to the head that had exposed the protective membrane sheathing its tiny brain.

The turtle called Holden III washed up a month ago on Holden Beach in the southern area of the state, apparently the victim of a boat propeller. Its front left flipper was fractured and the turtle was possibly blinded in one injured eye.

Beachgoers brought the turtle to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island where volunteers nursed it back to health. Volunteers then sought out medical options to help Holden III get back on its flippers.

"It's amazing; these little greens have such determination to live," said volunteer Peggy LeClair with the turtle hospital. "They have just strong personalities."

Green sea turtles, which can live more than 80 years and grow up to 5 feet and 700 pounds, regularly ply Atlantic waters along the Southeast coast. For a long time, the endangered turtles were hunted to make handbags and turtle soup. Later, the animal was popularized by the characters Squirt and Crush in the Disney movie "Finding Nemo."

Dr. Lewbart led the surgical team seeking to help the turtle's skull heal correctly. Skull surgery on turtles is not unprecedented, Lewbart said, adding that the university had conducted six similar surgeries during the past decade. It was Lewbart's second skull surgery on a turtle, but the first time an external brace had been used on a sea turtle.

The surgery lasted 90 minutes and included an ophthalmologist, anesthesiologist, radiologist and several lab assistants. They surrounded the table that held the 16-inch green turtle, whose brain is about as big around as a penny.

The vets decided early on that the turtle didn't have to be put under general anesthesia. Turtles have to make the conscious effort to breathe, and putting them under is typically the most dangerous part of the operation. Instead, Holden III got morphine.

Dr. Lewbart oversaw the installation of an external brace on Holden III's skull made out of stainless steel surgical wire, clothing hooks and glue. The plan, he said, was to stabilize the skull fragments and allow it to heal into a normal, functional shape.

"There was no way we could knit everything back today, there weren't enough pieces left for us to do that," Lewbart said. "We're going to let the turtle fill in those gaps with mineralized tissue."

Dr. Lewbart said Holden III was a very calm patient and was "resting comfortably" after surgery.

The doctors hope the knowledge gained will help with other turtles in the future. Meanwhile they are watchful there are no complications.

Holden III is back at the turtle hospital where the animal will undergo rehabilitation. Lewbart plans to check back in with his patient in two weeks and volunteers hope to have the turtle back into the wild by next spring or fall 2013.

The turtle hospital volunteer LeClair said she was struck by the resilience of turtles like Holden III.

"Some of these turtles, with what they have gone through, it's amazing to see them heal and go back into the ocean."

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Allen Reed can be reached on Twitter at: —http://twitter.com/Allen_Reed

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