Florida Sea Turtle With Shattered Shell Saved by Orthodontist, Veterinarians, Biotech Firms

PHOTO: Green sea turtle Andre is seen here being nursed back to health after being run over by a boats propeller.
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They called him Andre -- an endangered green sea turtle that washed up in 2010 on a sandbar on Juno Beach in Florida, nearly dead after a boat ran him over with its propeller and tore huge gashes in his shell. Biologists say accidents like that probably happen all the time, but since most of them are out on the open water, we never know about them.

Now, Andre has received a year's worth of care from veterinarians, biotech companies, and even an orthodontist. The turtle -- all 170 pounds of him -- is healthy again, and ready to be released back into the Atlantic on Wednesday.

"We found it to be very rewarding," said Dr. Alberto Vargas, the orthodontist who was called in to help by animal lovers at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach. "I grew up here, and so did members of my team. The turtle, the ocean, the beach, they're part of our community."

Andre's body cavity was exposed to the elements by the propeller. He had three pounds of sand in his body, and infection had set in. He had a collapsed lung and pneumonia. There was even a live crab trapped beneath a corner of his broken shell. Melissa Ranly, the hospital coordinator who took the call when Andre was found, said she was surprised how much life there was in him, considering how badly he had been hurt.

"We could tell he was a fighter," she said. "I can't tell you how many nights we sat awake thinking, 'What can we do to make this animal better?'"

The center exists to rescue such animals, and the staff brought in some big guns. They called a Texas company called Kinetic Concepts, which provides a high-tech systen called V.A.C. therapy to cleanse wounds gently. It also helped make an artificial scaffold over Andre's shell while natural tissue was grown to fill the gaps.

And a particularly complex job went to Dr. Vargas and his staff, who donated time to stretch sections of shell to help cover Andre's wounds, using adhesive so the shell would be solid when the parts were brought back together.

Dr. Vargas and his team work on Andre's shell.

"I usually do orthodontics on human beings, and I have no experience on animals," said Vargas. "It has helped us with our human patients because it taught us to think in new ways, to think outside the box. You can go out and discover new ways to solve problems."

Vargas said he found that the adhesives he usually uses -- designed for human beings -- were not very effective on a sea turtle's shell. Something he'd taken for granted for years had to be re-mixed until it worked.

Why all this effort for a turtle? Green sea turtles are reported to be dwindling in population, and Andre, said Ranly, was of prime age to be fathering new young.

"These animals have been around for millions of years," said Ranly, "and to lose them because of collisions with humans would be a pity."

Sure, there was publicity to be had from giving special care to a popular animal, and companies said they were glad to donate their time and equipment. Vargas said there was also the satisfaction of knowing that in his spare time, he was doing good.

"I've got three boys -- a five, six and three-year-old -- and bringing them over to the center, they were very excited," he said. "I try to talk to them about the importance of helping out people who are poor, who are less fortunate than we are. This was a great way to lead by example to show the value of giving back."

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