USF Health Radiology joins with Florida Aquarium to celebrate recovered sea turtle’s release

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Susan Coy, right, a Florida Aquarium veterinary technician, and intern Lauren Smith release the green sea turtle Freud at Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs. The Aquarium partnered with USF Health Radiology to help rehabilitate the turtle.

Freud took off and didn’t look back.

The green sea turtle flapped his tagged front flippers as a veterinary technician and intern from The Florida Aquarium held him just above the water.

Shielded from the rain by umbrellas, USF Health Radiology faculty and staff members cheered from the shoreline when Freud was released and slipped into the Gulf of Mexico with a splash. They were joined by other aquarium staff, some school children and others who came to Fred Howard Park in Tarpon Springs Monday.

Rapidly swimming several yards out, Freud popped his head up just once before diving into his future.

“Our whole team is going to miss Freud,” said Summer Decker, PhD, assistant professor and director of imaging research for the Department of Radiology, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. “Everyone, from the techs to the radiologists to our engineer, has been so excited about this project, so it is a bit sad to see him go.”

“It has been such an amazing opportunity to harness the advanced imaging technologies that we use routinely to treat our human patients to help Freud. We were honored to with be our Florida Aquarium friends to see him released into the wild.”

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Florida Aquarium’s Coy, right, with Summer Decker, PhD, director of research imaging for the Department of Radiology, USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

Susan Coy, the Aquarium’s veterinary technician and sea turtle expert, said watching Freud, fully recovered from a potentially life-threatening respiratory injury, leave was “bittersweet” but rewarding.

“Having the opportunity to rescue, rehabilitate and release animals like Freud is a huge part of The Florida Aquarium’s mission and is a critical piece to protecting these amazing creature for generations to come,” Coy said.  “We greatly appreciate the partnership at USF Health for all the help in successfully rehabilitating Freud.”

Freud’s return to the ocean was made possible by the collaboration between The Florida Aquarium and USF Health.   The sea turtle was transferred from Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach to The Florida Aquarium for advanced care in January 2013, a few months after he was found lethargic, bloated and covered with algae on a beach in Florida’s Panhandle.

Suffering from a suspected tear in his lung, he was taken to the USF Health Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation (CAMLS) by the aquarium veterinary staff later that year.  A CT scan and bronchoscopy was performed on the sea turtle at CAMLS to try to pinpoint any injuries causing air to fill his body and make it difficult for him to dive and swim.

The radiology team including Todd Hazelton, MD, chair of the USF Health Department of Radiology analyzed the scans, consulting with Dr. Doug Mader, DVM, of the Marathon Sea Turtle Hospital, who was able to explain the significant differences between human and turtle lung tissue and help the USF team interpret the findings.  Jonathan Ford, PhD, a biomedical engineer at USF Health Radiology, then used the scans to create and print three-dimensional models of Freud’s lungs.

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The Florida Aquarium staff called upon the USF Health Radiology team, who used with their imaging and 3-D modeling expertise to help diagnose Freud and confirm his recovery from a respiratory injury.

The team determined that Freud had a bronchopleural fistula, or a series of little holes in his lung.   “The imaging and 3-D modeling enabled us to find exactly where the trauma was on Freud’s lung that caused the problem,” Dr. Decker said.

Freud was the first sea turtle that USF Health Radiology had scanned, although the researchers have applied their imaging and 3-D modeling expertise to mummies,  fossils, sharks and other marine animals.

The initial treatment plan indicated surgery to repair the fistula.  But, The Florida Aquarium team providing Freud with nutrition, vitamins and other supportive care while he awaited surgery noticed signs in recent months that Freud was recovering. Whereas the sea turtle previously often floated on the surface, he was now able to dive to the bottom of the tank and glide effortlessly across the water – a huge accomplishment.

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A side by side 3-D model comparison, derived from CT scans, of sea turtle Freud’s originally damaged lung (left) and the healed lung (right).

The Florida Aquarium team suspected that Freud’s injury was healing, but they needed confirmation of any physiological changes. So, once again they reached out to their partners at USF Health Radiology.

In August, the rescued sea turtle took a trip to the radiology’s imaging facility at the USF Health South Tampa Center for Advanced Healthcare for a second round of advanced diagnostic imaging.  Remarkably, the CT scan confirmed that Freud’s injury had completely healed with just some residual scar tissue, making it possible to release him back into the wild.

“We were not expecting the injury to be totally healed, so we were all blown away and happy for Freud when we saw the images,” Dr. Decker said.

Before leaving the soggy beach on Monday afternoon, Decker and Coy stood side by side smiling and waved into one of many cameras recording Freud’s send-off.

“Bye, Freud,” they said in unison as the rain continued to fall.

“Have a good adventure,” Decker said.

“We don’t want to see you again,” Coy added.

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