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A veterinarian's role in the 2010 gulf oil spill (Proceedings)

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Aug 01, 2011

A mid-morning e-mail query from Dr. Craig Harms alerted me to the possibility of impending deployment to the Gulf of Mexico area for oiled sea turtle triage, treatment, and rehabilitation. Apparently the veterinary support for the Audubon Nature Institute's effort was about to head home and a relief team was needed pronto to provide clinical continuity. The direct request to Dr. Harms was from Sara McNulty of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Office of Protected Resources.

About 9:00 AM I contacted Shane Christian, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine (NCSU-CVM) Aquatic Animal Health Technician, via cell phone and put him on alert. We checked schedules, covered our Raleigh bases, packed, headed to the NCSU-CVM, and awaited further word. Nearly 3 hours of cell phone silence followed.

Walking into the CVM's Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH) I was stopped by Greta Johansen, the NCSU-CVM Chief Financial Officer, who was chatting with Shane in the hallway. Greta was better informed than I and had been diligently working on a service contract with British Petroleum (BP) that would facilitate our team's involvement in the oil cleanup/wildlife treatment effort. Greta, a devoted supporter of wildlife, conservation, and turtles in general, assured us that travel to New Orleans, even today if necessary, was doable regardless of the BP contract status. Between Craig, Sara, and Greta, the travel green light was flipped on, Shane tracked down flights (with assistance from Sarah Battle), and I worked with Dave Green, Director of the CVM's Public Relations and Outreach Office, who had set up two television interviews with NBC 17 and WRAL. Dave did a great job of last minute scheduling and both interviews were completed in time for me to depart on time for the airport with Shane to catch a 5:55 flight to New Orleans via Charlotte. There was even time for Tracey Peake, the College Director of Media Relations, to deliver a brand new Flip video camera to Janice Cofield at the front desk.

Our Charlotte flight was delayed about 40 minutes due to weather but we still had plenty of time to make our connection there and arrived New Orleans about 10:00 PM local time. I sat beside a nice and friendly gentleman who overheard Shane and me discussing the sea turtles. He had plenty of good and interesting questions for us, and shared photos of his beloved "Goldendoodle" Winston, who loves sitting on the back of an idling motorcycle with his owner. Dean also shared some Hurricane Katrina stories and had the misfortune of moving from Texas to New Orleans 5 days before the storm struck! Everything he owned was subjected to 6 feet of saltwater, but he and his wife survived, persevered, and seem to have a lovely life on Lake Pontchartrain. He lost a year of his life, a year of income, but, was genuinely grateful to have come out of the ordeal in relatively good shape compared to others. He also specifically thanked us for coming to New Orleans and assisting with the oil spill cleanup/mitigation effort.

Our Hertz rental car pick-up was uneventful and we headed for our hotel about 10:30 PM local time. After doing a bit of a New Orleans "drive-about," we found the Clarion Westbank Hotel and settled in for a good night's sleep.

Thursday June 17, 2010

Shane navigated us to Audubon Nature Institute's ACRES facility, where after about a 30-minute wait, Shane figured out that Cara Field was already on site, and could vouch for us with the security guard.

We spent about an hour meeting the dedicated staff and reviewing records and procedures with Cara. Others we met included Marina, a volunteer from NC and University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) graduate, Sarah Gomez, a veterinary technician with Audubon, Michelle (the Audubon stranding coordinator), Greg and Lance (Audubon aquarists), Amanda (media relations for Audubon), Krista (aquarist feeding/cleaning turtles).

We began working on turtles with Cara about 9:30 AM and she introduced us to the basic procedures, progress sheets, triage protocols, etc. I had to leave for Baton Rouge, and my Louisiana State University (LSU) AQUAMED teaching commitment, about 11:30 AM. Before I left a National Geographic (Nat Geo) photographer named Joel Santore, an expert on wildlife and exceedingly accomplished photojournalist, appeared with his son Cole. He was very professional, knowledgeable, and efficient. He was working on an article that appeared in the October issue of Nat Geo.

I drove to Baton Rouge and left Shane to work up turtles with the team, which he did, until about 4:00 PM. I delivered 3 hours of lecture on pet fish medicine, chatted with the AQUAMED students and faculty, and then consulted on LA 108, a Kemp's ridley from ACRES with bilateral femoral fractures. After meeting with Javier Navarez (LSU Exotics clinician) and his team, including a surgeon, and with input from Bob MacLean, the decision was made to return the turtle to New Orleans and stabilize it before making a final decision on surgery to stabilize the worst of the two fractures. The turtle and I drove the 80 or so miles back to Gretna (where our hotel is) that evening.