Saving Sarah

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June 3, 2013


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Mariners Hospital takes pride in caring for the members of its community.  And the small community hospital in Tavernier, part of the Florida Keys, doesn’t shy away when the neighbor in need of medical care happens to be a dolphin. 

Trainers caring for Sarah, a 29-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin who lives at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, began noticing the dolphin was having trouble breathing.  Her deteriorating health left them and veterinarians searching for answers to help the mammal, who provides therapy to special needs children visiting the center.  

They turned to their friends and neighbors at Mariners Hospital to help them uncover the cause, using a CT scanner usually reserved for human patients.

“When we received a call from the veterinarians, we knew we needed to help,” said Fran Glick, administrative director of Mariners’ Imaging department.  “We take care of our neighbors, no matter what species they are.”

After weeks of planning and coordinating details of her move from Island Dolphin Care to Mariners, a team of trainers and veterinarians brought Sarah to the hospital, hoisted the 9-foot-long, 370-pound patient onto a stretcher and wheeled  her into the room where the hospital’s CT scanner is housed. 

Sarah the Dolphin

Once inside the room, CT technologists worked with the vets and trainers to position the dolphin within the CT scanner to get the images needed to determine what was causing Sarah’s breathing problems.

“We took extra time to ensure that all the images the vets needed, plus some, were captured,” Glick said.  “Because the dolphin had to remain alert, although sedated, we also had to be extremely careful not to frighten or injure her inadvertently.”

The test, which normally takes 10 minutes on a human, Glick says, took 45 minutes with Sarah.  DVD copies of all the images taken during the CT scan were then distributed to veterinarians across the country to help come up with the best treatment for the dolphin’s diagnosis – a narrowing of her airways. 

Last month, Island Dolphin Care invited some of the Mariners team to their facility to witness the procedure Sarah underwent to open her airways.  Similar to angioplasty in a human who suffers from narrowing blood vessels, a balloon-like device was inserted into Sarah’s blowhole to open the paths leading to her lungs.

Veterinarians report that Sarah’s breathing has improved.

As for the team at Mariners, Sarah’s CT scan marked the beginning of developing a standardized process for examining dolphins.  They’re already familiar with other ocean animals like sea lions and sea turtles.

“It’s a rewarding experience for us,” said Pat Sauerman, a CT technologist who helped with Sarah’s study.  “I would do this all the time.”

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