We’re laser-focused at the hospital these days. Even after 20 years in the sea turtle business and over 650 successfully rehabilitated critters we’re still searching for new and better ways to treat our patients. And so begins our foray into cold laser treatment.

Cold lasers deliver light energy units (in joules) to cells that need energy. But unlike the high-powered lasers used medically to cut and cauterize, the cold lasers only penetrate the surface of the skin with minimal heating of the area under treatment. That’s a good thing when your patient is a sea turtle that’s very aware of and reacts to every little thing you’re doing to them. It’s an alternative treatment, like massage, acupuncture and PT and it doesn’t require any surgery or special drugs. Many practitioners who have been using ultrasound and electrical stimulation are showing a growing interest in cold lasers.

There’s a bunch of science behind this, but basically the goal of laser therapy is to deliver light energy units from red and infrared laser radiation (photons) to damaged cells. The consensus of experts is that these photons are absorbed by the cells and stimulate the mitochondria to help accelerate metabolic activity. The biochemical increase in cell energy transforms live cells from a state of illness to a stable, healthy state. Studies have shown that this form of treatment can promote faster healing, increase blood flow to effected areas, reduce scar tissue, stimulate nerve function and help with inflammation of joints. That checks a lot of the boxes at the turtle hospital.

Of course we’re working closely with Dr. Craig Harms as well as Dr. Tara Harrison at N.C. State Vet School who write up the protocols and train us in using the cold laser. The first turtle to raise her flipper for treatment was “Remora,” a loggerhead admitted mid-summer with a horrific injury right over her spinal column radiating out over much of her front carapace. Thankfully the CAT scan showed that although her spinal cord was impacted it was not severed. Dr. Harms reviewed Remora’s file and selected her as one of the first patients to receive the cold laser treatment. The recovery process is slow, her injuries are severe and we’re hoping that the addition of the cold laser will help in her recovery.

Dr. Harms selected another patient as well; little Kemp’s “Maz” who came in last winter with the “Star Wars” group. Although she received prescribed protocols for cold- stuns (antibiotics and other medications) she has been lagging in her recovery. If you’re a regular reader you know that the effects of cold-stunning can take months to show up, especially the bone lesions. Maz would only reluctantly use her left front flipper so she began her cold laser treatments at the same time as Remora. On Tuesday (20th) we noticed that her left rear stifle joint (her “knee”) was badly swollen and inflamed. Photos were sent to Dr. Harms and after consultation Maz got her first cold laser knee treatment along with an additional antibiotic within the hour. Both turtles will continue with their treatment and hopefully it will relieve pain and promote healing.

Hospital’s fall tour schedule

Even though we’ve moved to a two-day-a-week tour schedule, the crowds have not diminished. We’re still meeting turtle fans from all over the world, with a lot of them down from Ohio. With a lighter patient load we’ve been using our “spare time” to complete major work (our new lift station is up and running!), review hospital protocols and spruce up the building. We are open only on Thursdays and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. We will not be open on Thanksgiving but will open on “black Friday” and also that Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Our last day for tours in 2016 is Dec. 17.

Admission is $5 adults; $4 seniors (65+) and active military with ID and $3 for children 13 and over. It’s still hot here through September so an umbrella to make your own shade and lots of water to stay hydrated would be a good idea. We do our best to get you inside as quickly as possible but we also want to allow enough time for everybody to enjoy their visit. The hospital is located at 302 Tortuga Lane in Surf City. From N.C. 210/50 turn onto Charlie Medlin Drive. (Shipwreck Point Mini Golf is your landmark) and follow it through the roundabout onto Tortuga. Our gift shop is open during tours and we have a lot of exclusive hospital clothing and plush animal merchandise, and lots of sea turtle “stuff.” Come in and meet our patients and talk some sea turtle with our staff.

Hatching continues through the next few months

Hatchlings rule these days, and since the last turtle nested only a few weeks ago nests will be hatching through early November. Our Topsail Turtle Project volunteers continue to vigilantly sit nests through all kinds of weather, but even with all that coverage it’s still possible to miss a hatching for a variety of reasons. That’s why we ask you to be our extra eyes and to report any tracks to Director of Beach Operations Terry Meyer at 910-470-2880. And we are still admitting victims of last winter’s cold weather who are only now becoming too debilitated from that trauma to survive without intervention. Please be on the lookout for any turtle in distress, injured (or dead) and call Meyer, Hospital Director Jean Beasley at 910-470-2800 or the State of NC hotline for stranded, sick and injured turtles at 252-241-7367. The state number picks up 24/7. Remember that interfering or harassing federally protected sea turtles in any way makes you subject to steep fines and possible imprisonment.

If you happen to see a hatchling on the beach (sometimes they wash back in if the surf is rough) carefully pick it up and put it in a small container with only a small amount of water — barely cover the flippers. It’s important that the little critter not lay exposed on the beach for hours, subject to weather and predators. Call Director of Beach Operations Terry Meyer at 910-470-2880. If she is not available you may call the hospital during operating hours: 910-329-0222. We will take the information and one of our area coordinators will meet you to retrieve the hatchling and refer it to us for follow-up.

Questions, comments, suggestions?

Please direct any questions, comments or suggestions re: this column to me at flippers@att.net. This column is on a weekly schedule through the summer.


Karen Sota is the volunteer media coordinator for the Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach.