By Jennifer Tuohy, Island Eye News Editor
The morning of April 25, 2014 Dr. Anne Cook opened her surgery in preparation for the arrival of a very special patient. At 182 lbs, Briar was not only substantially larger than Cook’s regular patients, but she was a completely different species.
A loggerhead sea turtle, Briar was found stranded on the beach in Myrtle Beach in May 2013. Rescued by Brett Weinheimer and Linda Mataya from the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol, Briar was emaciated, severely anemic and her vital signs were dismal. She was also covered in barnacles. Although her case seemed hopeless, she was quickly transferred to the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital.
Over the next six months Briar responded well to the medical treatments and gained over 50 pounds, putting her back into healthy weight range. However, staff started to notice a change in her feeding behavior. Once a vivacious eater, Briar had begun to have problems finding food, biting at a single piece several times before actually consuming it. Just a few weeks earlier she was catching live blue crabs with no problems, suddenly it was an impossible task. Aquarium veterinarian Dr. Boylan, performed a physical exam to take a closer look at her eyes and found the turtle had developed cataracts. Seeking a second opinion, Boylan reached out to Dr. Cook.
Cook, the Lowcountry’s only veterinary ophthalmologist, lives on Sullivan’s Island and works out of her practice Animal Eye Care of the Lowcountry in Mount Pleasant. Upon her visit to the Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital, she confirmed that Briar had cataracts in both eyes.
The process of removing cataracts from cats and dogs is a very isn’t very different on a sea turtle, it had only ever been done once before.
Cook spoke to the surgeons who had performed the first surgery and did extensive research over many months to prepare for the procedure on Briar.
“The main difference is that the eye, while ultimately very similar to that of a cat or dog, has subtle differences which in an eye like that are magnified.” Cook said. “The eye of a turtle is a lot smaller than that of a dog or cat—and their pupils don’t dilate with the same types of medication as cats or dogs, the cornea is much thicker which makes it challenging.
“Dealing with that massive 180lb animal in your surgery room was exciting. It was an amazing day,” Cook said. “And daunting. But it was a good experience for all of us. Putting an animal like that under anesthesia is a very big deal.” Dr. Jose, also a Sullivan’s resident, handled Briar’s anesthesia.
“It went very smoothly,” Cook said.
“It was a little touch and go after the surgery, but once we took her stitches out she rapidly healed.”
The weeks following surgery consisted of an intense regimen of drops and ointments administered multiple times each day which required removing the loggerhead from her tank each time. Improvements with Briar’s vision were visible just a week after surgery, and Briar was able to locate and eat small pieces of fish in her tank.
Three weeks post-surgery, Dr. Cook removed sutures from both eyes, but the big test was still to come. Briar needed to be able to catch live blue crabs before being considered for release. For a few weeks, Briar seemed to be suffering from a case of stage fright, only feeding at night while no one was watching. But finally staff spotted her successfully catching the live crabs, meaning her sight was good enough for her to return home.
After more than thirteen months at the Aquarium hospital, Briar went back to the ocean Tuesday, July 15, released in front of an adoring crowd at the Isle of Palms County Park.
Dr. Cook and her 5 year old son Reed were there for the big day.
Reed spent a lot of time with Briar during his mother’s treatment of the turtle, and was able to hold her sign on release day.
“It was an honor both professionally and personally to be asked,” Cook said. “And of course we donated the surgery for her benefit.”
Over the last 10 years on average 133 sea turtles have been stranded on South Carolina beaches. Of these, roughly 10 percent were alive and successfully transported to the Sea Turtle Hospital. To date, the South Carolina Aquarium has successfully rehabilitated and released 137 sea turtles, with seven currently being treated.