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    Fernandina Beach ophthalmologist J. Russell Stackhouse, M.D., left, and Brunswick veterinarian Terry Norton, DVM, collaborated to successfully remove a tumor from the eye of a green sea turtle in a two-hour long procedure. The patient is doing well and expected to return to life at sea in the near future. GEORGIA SEA TURTLE CENTER

Sea turtle’s eyesight saved by local surgeon

When park rangers found a distressed turtle stranded on Cumberland Island last winter, they contacted the Georgia Sea Turtle Center for rescue. Located on nearby Jekyll Island, GSTC found that the juvenile green turtle was covered in soft tissue tumors that had spread to both eyes. The turtle, which turned out to be a male, had stopped feeding, was dehydrated and hypothermic. The GSTC staff nicknamed him Manicotti.

After stabilizing Manicotti’s overall health and confirming all the tumors were external, Brunswick veterinarian Terry Norton, DVM, performed five laser surgeries on Manicotti to remove the skin tumors. The condition, called fibropapillomatosis or FP, is caused by the herpes virus and thought to be triggered by a suppressed immune system. As Manicotti’s health improves and his immune system is restored, the virus is expected to go into remission and form no new tumors.

“I used traditional surgery on the eyes because we worried about using the laser. All tumors resolved except a corneal tumor that was difficult to remove,” explained Norton. “That is where Dr. Stackhouse came in.”

Fernandina Beach ophthalmologist J. Russell Stackhouse, M.D., owner of Coastal Vision Center, is a board certified cataract and refractive surgeon who has volunteered his expertise in the rescue of sea turtles for the past four years. Recruited earlier by Norton, Stackhouse had done eye surgeries on turtles on two previous occasions.

In July, Stackhouse and Norton performed a second surgery on Manicotti to remove the stubborn tumor on his right eye. The surgery was performed at GSTC, where the surgery suite has a glass wall for onlookers. “It was cool because my two oldest kids had never seen what I do and they got to watch,” said Stackhouse.

Stackhouse admitted eye surgery on a turtle is “very different” than working on a human eye. He explained, “Since a turtle can hold its breath for up to 30 minutes at a time, it’s not easy to administer anesthesia. Dr. Norton handled that part. … A turtle’s eye has three eyelids and there is a salt gland behind the eye (where turtles produce tears to shed excess salt). You have to avoid damaging the salt gland duct on the interior of the eye. The skin of their eye is leathery and tougher than a human eye, so you have to use different instruments. … Since Manicotti is a juvenile, his eye is quite a bit smaller than a human eye.”

The two-hour surgery appears to have been a success. Norton reports, “The turtle is looking great and is just receiving eye drops currently.” Manicotti has gained two pounds since rescue, now weighing in at 18.5 pounds.

Stackhouse has been advised Manicotti is one of the lucky ones who will be released back into the wild after recovery. The same day he operated on Manicotti, Stackhouse had to remove the eye of another turtle so badly injured by a boat propeller that it will have to remain in captivity at the sanctuary.

Manicotti is a green sea turtle, one of three species that nest along the Georgia-Florida coast. Leatherback sea turtle nests are also occasionally found, but the most common nester in the area is the loggerhead turtle. Other species can be found in area waters but are not known to nest locally.

The life and reproductive cycle of the loggerhead turtle makes a compelling case for why each adult turtle is precious. Sea turtles tend to return to within 30 miles of where they were hatched to lay their eggs. Only females come ashore while males spend their entire life in the ocean. Females begin laying eggs in early May and hatchlings emerge from early July through October. About 75% of the eggs will hatch. Only one of every 4,000 hatchlings is expected to make it to adulthood because of predators, boat collisions and other factors. It takes 34 years for a female loggerhead turtle to reach reproductive maturity. She will nest between four to six times in one season and then she will not return to nest again for one to three years.

Stackhouse, who enjoys scuba diving at wrecks off St. Simons Island as a hobby, recalls watching sea turtles gracefully glide through the waters there on dives.

“It is gratifying to be able to help them,” he said. A father of three, he is also encouraging his children to participate in sea turtle patrols during nesting season.

Originally from Goldsboro, N.C., Stackhouse obtained his medical degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and completed his ophthalmology residency at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He completed a fellowship in cornea, external disease and refractive surgery at Tulane University in New Orleans. Stackhouse relocated to Coastal Vision Center in Fernandina Beach five years ago and recently bought the practice from its previous owners.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center, located at 214 Stable Road on Jekyll Island, is a working rehabilitation hospital for sick and injured animals. It is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for tours. The cost is $7 for adults, $6 for senior citizens, $5 for children ages 4 to 12, and free for children under 4. They offer a number of additional special programs from night-to-dawn sea turtle patrol rides to behind-the-scenes tours of treatment rooms and the surgical suite. Call (912) 635-4444 or visit gstcreservations@jekyllisland.com.

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