The first time I visited an aquarium, it was because a snowstorm had grounded all flights in and out of Boston for three days. I was young enough to forget what else we did to fill the other two days, but I distinctly remember our day at the New England Aquarium. I was fascinated by the tanks of drifting jellyfish, mesmerizing with their strange shapes and graceful floating movements. I loved the fierce spines of the lionfish and was fascinated to learn that most of the fishes’ landscape wasn’t fake, but living coral. I remember thinking “Wait, those rocks are alive?” But my favorite moment was meeting Myrtle the Turtle, a 90-year-old, 550-pound green sea turtle, the only creature (in my mind) able to devour a chunk of iceberg lettuce with remarkable majesty.
So you can imagine how excited I was to attend a sea turtle radiology lunch talk by Dr. Innis of the New England Aquarium this spring. His team was refining their methods of using x-ray to study and diagnose sea turtles. Our Diagnostic Imaging Club looked with rapt attention at slides of turtles with pneumonia, fractured shells, swallowed fishhooks, and even bone cancer. Most of the patients he studied were actually sick wild-caught turtles, which were brought to the aquarium for treatment and recovery. Dr. Innis told us how some turtles were brought in so cold and hypothermic that their hearts only beat once every 3 minutes. He explained that because stethoscopes can’t be used to hear the heart through a thick shell, the aquarium staff used an ultrasound probe placed in the soft skin in front of the turtle’s shoulder to watch the heart contract and relax with each heartbeat.
It was a fascinating peek into the life of an aquarium vet, and it reminded me of how much medicine we have yet to adapt to aquatic species.