A rescued sea turtle undergoing rehabilitation at the Seattle Aquarium became the first nonhuman treated in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber at Virginia Mason Hospital earlier this week when medical experts and marine wildlife veterinarians collaborated in an effort to compress internal gas bubbles that prevent the reptile from diving or remaining under water.
The 70-pound olive ridley sea turtle, named Tucker by aquarium staff who have cared for him since December, is undergoing tests at the Seattle Aquarium this week to determine if hyperbaric therapy—which involved breathing 100 percent oxygen for about 2 ½ hours—corrected his buoyancy problem. The turtle cannot be safely released back into the Pacific Ocean until he is able to dive normally, which is important for him to find food and avoid predators and other threats, such as boats.
While at the Virginia Mason Center for Hyperbaric Medicine on Monday, the 20-year-old turtle was closely monitored by a team of experts that included Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna Lahner, DVM, MPH, and James Holm, MD, medical director at the Center for Hyperbaric Medicine. Drs. Lahner and Holm, and hyperbaric nurse Alyson Barger, RN, were inside the hyperbaric chamber with Tucker from the start of therapy through completion. The turtle was watched closely with a heart monitor and assisted with breathing via a tube in his airway. He was provided sedation and tolerated the treatment well.
"We are honored that the Seattle Aquarium team contacted us about using hyperbaric oxygen as a possible treatment to help Tucker on his road to recovery,” said Dr. Holm, who is board-certified in undersea and hyperbaric medicine and has been a scuba diver for 40 years. “We have treated many scuba divers over the years for a gas bubble disease known as decompression sickness, which is also called ‘the bends.’ This is the first time we have been asked to assist in the care of a sea turtle, which are excellent divers themselves.”
Hyperbaric oxygen has been tested as a treatment for decompression-like sickness in sea turtles, according to a study from Spain published in the October 2014 edition of Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. But this is believed to be the first time the therapy has been used for a sea turtle in the United States with Tucker’s specific ailment.
During treatment sessions, the hyperbaric chamber is pressurized with air to about three times the normal atmospheric pressure. Patients breathe 100 percent oxygen, enabling their blood to carry up to 15 times the normal amount of oxygen to organs and tissues. This can help “crush” bubbles, as well as provide high tissue oxygen levels to restore normal tissue function.
In December, Tucker was found stranded and near death on the Oregon Coast far from his usual warm-water Pacific Ocean habitat off Southern California and Mexico. He has been undergoing treatment and rehabilitation at the Seattle Aquarium to correct the effects of severe pneumonia. Hand-fed and nurtured by the Aquarium staff, the turtle has regained weight and a normal body temperature. However, a CT (computerized tomography) scan showed gas bubbles may be trapped in his body, making him too buoyant to dive successfully and find food on his own in the wild.
“I am thrilled that Virginia Mason and its amazing team were willing to bring Tucker the sea turtle into the hyperbaric chamber,” said Lahner. “Not only will the treatment potentially help him to be released back into the wild, but it has provided us valuable information about the diving physiology of sea turtles as we were able to closely monitor his vitals and blood gases throughout the entire procedure.
“This has been an exciting collaboration of veterinary medicine and human health care providers,” she added.
Virginia Mason is the region’s leading provider of hyperbaric oxygen treatment for conditions such as carbon monoxide poisoning and decompression sickness, a potentially life-threatening hazard of scuba diving. Its Level 1, 24-hour hyperbaric medicine program is one of the few in the United States accredited “with distinction” by the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society.
In addition to decompression sickness and carbon monoxide poisoning, the Virginia Mason Center for Hyperbaric Medicine treats medical conditions such as diabetic wounds and tissue damaged by radiation during cancer therapy. “Treatment of radiation tissue injury is our most common indication,” Dr. Holm said. “The condition requires multiple treatments and has excellent outcomes.”
The center provides about 8,000 hours of patient treatment annually. The tube-shaped hyperbaric oxygen chamber, measuring 10 feet wide and 46 feet long, can accommodate as many as 16 human patients at one time.
The Center for Hyperbaric Medicine was established more than 40 years ago and has been in its current location at Virginia Mason Hospital since 2005. The program’s medical staff members have published nearly 100 articles about hyperbaric medicine in a variety of medical journals.
More related news: KING5 News—Sea turtle get hyperbaric treatment at Virginia Mason