Van Gogh lay on his side, propped up between two slabs of foam and covered by a plastic sheet with a hole in it large enough for Kahlina Frey to stitch up his right eye. He had been under anesthesia for about an hour and a Doppler machine beat out a steady pulse that sounded like a metal sheet being warped, a strange yet reassuring sound that let everyone know his heart was still beating.
Van Gogh is an Eastern painted turtle and Case No. 158 for the year for the Turtle Rescue Team, an organization of about 30 students at the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Van Gogh had gone blind from an eye infection that had not responded to medical treatment. He had stopped eating due to pain from the infection so the team decided to operate.
"We're hoping that by removing the infection he won't be in so much pain and he'll start eating again," said Frey, a third-year veterinary student. "Blind turtles will still eat as long as they can smell or feel the food."
Van Gogh is one of about 20 turtles being treated by the team, although the number fluctuates as treated turtles are sent to rehab or released and new turtles are brought in. The turtles undergoing treatment wear on their shells name tags made from masking tape and are housed in plastic bins stacked on shelves in a tiny room, which also serves as the operating room, in the vet school.
The majority of the turtles the team treats have sustained "vehicular trauma"—they've been hit by cars—but they also may have suffered dog bites, upper respiratory infections and wounds from fish hooks. The team also incubates and hatches eggs, and despite its name, even treats the occasional snake or frog.
"Sometimes we'll have people call us because they've found a turtle in a trashcan," said Shane Christian, an aquatic research technician and staff coordinator for the team. "Usually what happens there is that people think the turtle is dead, which can be hard to tell because their hearts can slow down to one or two beats a minute, and they throw it away."
The Turtle Rescue Team began with Gregory Lewbart's passing interest in reptiles and amphibians. Although he specializes in fish as a professor of aquatic animal medicine, when he joined the faculty of the College of Veterinary Medicine in 1993, he started treating a few turtles brought to him by friends and colleagues. If he couldn't treat the turtles, then he would pass them on to wildlife rehabilitator Linda Henis. And in 1996, when Henis moved away, she gave Lewbart a donation to found the Turtle Rescue Team.
"Everything seemed to fit," said Lewbart, who is still the team's staff adviser.
The team treated about 70 turtles in the first year, Lewbart said. In 2003, it set a record with 271 turtles treated, a record that Christian said could possibly be surpassed this year considering there already have been more than 160 cases. (Since the team's inception, it has treated more than 2,200 turtles.)
Frey said that summer is the busiest time of year because turtles are active; they hibernate in fall and winter. "It is pretty much my life right now," said Frey.
That is no exaggeration. Team members carry a pager that people can call when they find a sick or injured turtle. Frey and other veterinarians-in-training regularly discuss their patients' conditions and know every turtle by name and ailment. They can recite the treatments without picking up a chart.
"They're such stoic creatures," said Bethany Walters, a second-year veterinary student. "They can sustain so much."
During Van Gogh's surgery, Marina Mavromatis, a third-year student assisting on the surgery, answered Frey's questions, and Jen Hendricks, who is in her second year, observed the surgery and chimed in with questions of her own.
"It's the best hands-on experience on campus," said Mavromatis.
"The students really run things," said Christian, who answers questions and coaches the students during surgery. "I just fill in the gaps."
And although many of the students don't want to specialize in exotic animals, they learn skills and ways of adapting that will help them no matter what kind of veterinary medicine they practice.
"If they're zoo vets then one minute they could be working on a thousand-pound elephant and the next minute they could be working on a hummingbird," said Christian.
"It's a real confidence booster," said Walters. "I know if I can pull blood off of a turtle's jugular then I can definitely pull it off of a cat's."
The students use every experience, even the sad ones, to learn. A turtle that Walters had operated on, who was expected to recover, died unexpectedly. Walters didn't know what had gone wrong. Walters talked about the case with the other students and Christian to try to learn from the experience.
"It's hard when they don't make it, but we do our best," said Frey.
However, the team often gets to celebrate a successful recovery. Everyone cheered when a park ranger showed up to take two turtles, Hermione, who had been treated for an ear infection, and Miller, who had recovered from an upper respiratory infection, to Falls Lake State Park to release them back into the wild.
Lewbart said the team tries to release turtles close to where they were found so not to interfere with their territories, but rescuers also make sure that they are released in a safe place. It's important to keep turtles wild to maintain the population, Frey said, but some turtles, such as Van Gogh, cannot be released. Instead they are adopted by volunteers, many of whom already foster turtles that are rehabilitating after treatment. A volunteer adopted Van Gogh.
Christian said that a case like Van Gogh's costs about $100, because the students volunteer their time. He said that the team has an annual budget of about $7,500, which comes in part from the Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association at N.C. State, but mostly from private donations.
In the room, everyone stopped when Floats, a tiny river cooter that had been admitted in early May with buoyancy issues—he couldn't submerge himself in water—started eating a grape in his tank.
"This is the best part," said Mavromatis. She explained that it's rewarding when the turtles start eating again because it's a sign that they're recovering. Floats would be released in a few days, she said.
"It does take a lot," said Frey, "but it helps that they're awesome."