In a first-of-its-kind collaboration between veterinary surgeons and human spine specialists, the Mississippi Aquarium’s sand tiger shark Stella underwent novel spinal surgery to correct scoliosis and kyphosis.
The unique operation took place last September after staff at the aquarium noticed that the shark was having difficulty swimming. Experts noted a sideways and outward curvature of her spine and ordered a set of x-rays, which led to the diagnosis of a partial luxation of the vertebrae of the animal’s spine.
As is frequently done with human patients, a conservative approach was offered first, with the shark being prescribed medication and being monitored for improvement. Though initially optimistic, experts were forced to admit that the curvature was becoming worse. The shark stopped eating and its difficulties with swimming would soon put its life in danger.
With the understanding that shark anatomy is extreme different from that of humans, spine surgeons from a spine specialty practice located close to the aquarium worked with veterinarians to find a solution for skeletons made of cartilage rather than bone. Included in the procedure – along with veterinarians from the Mississippi Aquarium, theSouth Carolina Aquarium, and Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists, surgeons from Bienville Orthopaedic Specialists and Singing Rinver Gulfport Orthopaedics collaborated with a representative from Implant Distributor LSI to help Stella.
Stella’s two-hour procedure was an eye-opening experience for all involved. Not only did the animal receive metal plates to secure her spine and an infusion of platelet-rich plasma into her cartilage, she was also put under anesthesia at the same time that she needed her surgical site kept dry and water flowing through her gills.
According to those involved, once the surgery was completed, Stella was released into a recovery pool, where she was seen swimming better than she had prior to the surgery. Speaking of the experience, veterinarian Alexa Delaune of the Mississippi Aquarium said,
“Regardless of the long-term outcome of this case, it should be considered a huge success. When I approached Kurt Allen (Mississippi Aquarium President and CEO) with the idea that we try something radical in order to help the shark, he was fully supportive and encouraged us to try. The veterinarians and human specialists that helped us did so without hesitation and at their own cost. I was humbled at the overwhelming response of people wanting to help our shark. This case exemplifies what can happen when medical professionals come together with their individual strengths to achieve a common goal. We learned so much from this procedure and have many ideas on how we could improve the procedure in the future, but overall we are so happy with her progress thus far.”
The implants for the surgery were donated, and each of the physicians and veterinarians involved donated their time, their surgical equipment and their expertise to help the 90-pound shark.