Injured turtle gets CAT scan

Veterinarians used sedatives and lots of tape to scan this patient.

Published May 26, 2007

TAMPA - The CT scan machine was not designed for patients with flippers. And yet here lay Lucy, a 150-pound, 3-foot-long loggerhead turtle, coaxed into cooperation with duct tape and a few shots of sedative.

"This is fancy tape, fancy medical-grade tape," said Ilze Berzins, a vice president of biological operations at Tampa's Florida Aquarium, as she tore off long strips of blue duct tape to secure the 150-pound injured sea turtle to the machine.

Lucy fought back -- things with flippers were not designed for CT scans, either -- and broke free of the tape. Her handlers reached for another shot of sedative.

The honey-colored sea turtle can't move her back two legs, and her handlers at the Florida Aquarium carried her to Florida Veterinary Specialists to get a scan of a 2-centimeter gouge left on her shell by a boat prop. The injury may have partially paralyzed the turtle, and veterinarians at the aquarium's program for rehabilitating wild turtles need to know more about the injury before determining whether Lucy can be released back into the ocean.

The turtle -- whose gender actually is unknown, though her handlers refer to her as a girl -- was found injured in August near St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant on Hutchinson Island.

Aquarium veterinary technician Susan Coy said Lucy is a fighter, surviving in the wild for a least a year despite her bad injury.

"They don't have personality because they're not people, but they do have attitude," she said. "Some are a little calmer; some are a little feistier."

Lucy has not been on display at the aquarium. Instead, her home has been a tank in a Quonset hut behind the aquarium, alongside tanks holding two other injured turtles -- Shelly, an endangered Kemp's Ridley turtle who got frostbite while swimming in Massachusetts, and Sam, a loggerhead about to be released.

The aquarium's turtle rehab program began in fall 1999, Coy said, and its veterinarians have treated about 50 turtles.

Aquatics medicine like this is a fairly new discipline, said Berzins, and some aspects of Lucy's examination, such as how much sedative she needed and what CT scan setting would produce the clearest images, were trial and error.

Lucy's scan was the first Florida Veterinary Specialists had performed on a sea turtle.

"You've got to start somewhere," said radiologist Wendy Gwin.

The scan revealed that the prop gouge affected the area around her spinal cord, though an MRI will be needed to more accurately assess the soft tissue surrounding her vertebrate. "The defect ... comes into very close contact with her spinal cord, so there was some damage," Gwin said.

Mike Terrell, dive training coordinator at the aquarium, said Lucy's feistiness is a promising sign that she could readjust well to the ocean, if she regains movement in her back legs.

"We like our turtles surly," Terrell said. "At the end of the day, they're wild animals. ... We don't want them to see humans as a source of food or attention."

Sarah Mishkin can be reached at smishkin@sptimes.com or 813-225-3110.