Friday, July 13, 2012

Grieving and Healing

Unfortunately, life working in rehabilitation is not always the highs of victories - of nests and releases. In fact, things like this are even more precious to us because of their rarity. I made a comment in my release blog that said that the amazing experience that it was would help me to carry on through the difficult times ahead. What's funny about that comment, is that I hardly had any idea what those difficult times would really be like. June 25th, was the hardest day we’ve had at the hospital so far on an emotional level. We experienced so much defeat in a very short amount of time, and it gave the phrase “difficult times” a whole new meaning for me. However, it gave me a lot more than that as well.

On that Monday, we got 4 turtles in the course of 24 hours, all with horrific injuries, all hanging on by a thread, and two of those turtles died that day. The other two looked like they wouldn’t make it to morning. During that Monday and the days that followed I would be bashed with a lot of different emotions, all profound in their own ways. I was angry at the world for being a cruel place, and for leading these animals to such painful ends. I was disappointed with modern medicine for not being able to do more for them. In this day and age, in times of such great technology and medicinal advances, there are still times when we are useless to bring these turtles back. I was frustrated to see a beautiful animal, and know that it's giving up, and can’t stand another day of suffering. But maybe most potent for me was dealing with the injustice of the situation, I could practically taste the injustice as I thought about how this turtle should be way out there catching a ride on a current, harassing some crabs, taking a nap in the sand - or just anything else. These turtles shouldn’t be dying before my eyes. They certainly didn’t deserve this struggle. 

One of the lessons I learned that day is that sometimes our role as a hospital is not necessarily one of rehabilitation as much as it's a sanctuary. A few times last week turtles came, and we did all we could to make them comfortable. We gave them a clean space, we gave them pain medication to ease their suffering, and we kept them warm and calm, and they died in peace as a result of their illnesses or injuries. As much as it pains all of us to watch that turtle go, to monitor it and to soothe it, knowing it has limited time left with us, you have to acknowledge that the turtle is better off here than the alternative – at least while they’re here we can keep them calm, safe, and free of as much pain as medically possible. 

What I was experiencing was nothing short of a grieving process. To not only see these animals die, but to also see them suffer haunts you for a while. 

But if a job like this is often entrenched in defeat, why do we do it?

In short, we do it for the chance at victory, because we might be able to change the course of another turtle’s future. We do it for the little victories that can eventually lead to a big victory. When I think of little victories, I think of turtles that beat the odds, but do it one baby step at a time. It starts with staying alive another day, it continues with eating heartily, developing an attitude again which indicates a new found will to fight and live, the new scale growing underneath the scab, each day brings with it something new to appreciate. That’s not to say that there aren’t setbacks – hunger strikes, discouraging test results, new ailments that pop up, etc. But hope is ever present that the setbacks will be brief and progress will resume. 

I’ve experienced many of my own little victories, and seeing these sea turtles progress has been everything I’ve ever dreamed of, but one that sticks in my mind revolves around one of the turtles we got on that fateful Monday. Her name is now Nichols, and she came to us with not just one appalling wound, but two. We think that one flipper got caught in a crab pot line, completely twisting it around, mangling the flesh and becoming severely infected. This would’ve been enough to worry about – but she also had a huge hole in her back from being hit by a boat. When she came to us she was in such sorry shape that we didn’t expect her to make it through the night, and that just added to the gloom of the day. However, we were encouraged to find her alive the next morning, and the morning after that. During her first few days we primarily focused on managing her discomfort – keeping her warm and dry (we weren’t sure if she’d be strong enough to swim after all she’d been through), but we were eventually able to put her in water. The first time we put her in water has to be in the top 10 best moments I’ve ever experienced at the hospital – because she went from being so depressed and lifeless and miserable to the happiest little turtle in the world. 

As the water filled the tank, she laid there, looking listless, until suddenly she realized that she had about 4 inches of water, and she perked up and began marching around the tank, exploring it as though she’d awoken from a deep sleep. It was like a salve on my broken heart to see her so happy by the simplest of things. She was splashing and swimming, and she suddenly looked ready to fight again. She does this adorable thing where she opens her mouth while she swims around – I’m not sure if she’s just drinking, or if she’s threatening the world not to mess with her, but I like to think it’s a little bit of both. 

Nichols, swimming in her tank, ready to take on the world.
Working with this turtle has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. She has a long road ahead of her – she’s by no means in the clear. Her future includes surgery and extensive recovery time, but as long as she hangs in there, I will be beside the tank cheering her on. 

We love what we do because as much as the situations we are faced with may disappoint us, may break us down for a while, we know that there are turtles at the hospital waiting to surprise us, to amuse us, to enchant us, if only we give them the chance. We can’t spend too much time grieving for the ones that are lost because we can’t heal the turtles that can still benefit from our care if we are too wounded ourselves. We say our goodbyes and allow ourselves a moment and we never forget them as we move forward. We continue to clean tanks and administer treatments, but we also go out to the beaches and open our doors to hundreds of people each day to share with them the message that we all have to enact a change together.  

I am grateful for all the ways I’ve already grown through this internship, and all the new strengths I’ve started to cultivate. When I feel broken down, when I feel like the grief is too much, I just remember that if no one was willing to work through their grief, the 350+ turtles that have been released from this hospital and the turtles that have been released from other turtle hospitals around the world, would never have gotten their second chance. So we pick ourselves up and we find the strength to keep going, because Nichols needs us, because Monroe needs us, because Lefty needs us, because Ocracoke needs us, we are their caretakers, and it is our privilege to be.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Nesting Action in Topsail

Did you know that the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital got its start in nest protection? It's true! Many years before the Beasley family started rehabilitating turtles, they were out on the beach protecting nests from predators and poachers. This summer, the interns have been keeping the tradition alive by being active in the nesting portion of the Topsail Sea Turtle Project.

Nesting season seems to have come into full swing in the past couple weeks. So far, I've seen two nesting females, three nests, and got to assist relocating two nests. The most recent time that the interns got out to see a nesting female was the most profound to me, and I think that's because of what we all went through that day long before the loggerhead came out on the beach.

Monday, June 25th, was hands-down the most emotionally difficult day we've had at the hospital this summer. We had four new turtles come in in less than twenty-four hours, all with horrendous injuries. Two of them did not make it despite our best efforts and prayers. I was beside myself with grief when I left the hospital at the end of the day. I don't want to delve too far into this topic right now, because I plan to dedicate a future blog to it. I think it's important to mention this, though, because it's hard to understand how this experience affected me without that background.

Anyway, that night, I'd finally decided that it was time to settle in and get some sleep when we got the call at about 9:30. We hear, "TURTLE ON THE BEACH!" and there's a minute or two of complete pandemonium as people rush about the house changing clothes, putting on shoes, and running out the door to pile into the car.

Once we finally arrived on the beach and all sat in the sand to watch the female as she covered her eggs, I felt a huge sense of peace that I had been longing for all day. Here we had a healthy turtle out on the beach laying her eggs, doing exactly as she's supposed to do. She gives her babies the gift of life, and leaves them to fend for themselves, never to see them again - as it has happened for thousands of years. This is why we go through the hard times - in hopes that more turtles are out there to breed and keep the species going.

One of my favorite memories of the summer so far is when our beach coordinator gave us permission to approach the female from behind and give her a pat on the back and tell her "good job" as she headed out to the ocean. Just like, having your hand on a wild animal, and then watching her jump into a wave and continue on, forgetting you almost as soon as that water carries her out of your grasp - it makes you feel so small.

 Unfortunately, she laid her nest right in front of a huge condominium, which meant that if the babies hatched there, they could easily go the wrong way, attracted by the lights instead of heading out to the ocean. This meant that we had to relocate the nest to a more peaceful place.

The two times I've helped relocate nests have followed a pretty standard order. The first part is trickier than you might think - find the egg chamber. Turtles work hard to camouflage that chamber as best they can, so it can take quite some digging to find the nest. Here's some photos from my second relocation - the first happened at night, so there are no pictures from that experience.
When moving eggs, it's always very important to try to keep their orientation intact, because if you rotate them you can harm the egg's chances of developing properly.

At this point, we'd uncovered the eggs, and started to transfer them into the bucket to move them.

Once all the eggs are out, the beach coordinators have us take a bunch of sand from the bottom of the nest. When the female is done digging the hole for the eggs, but before she starts actually dropping the eggs into the nest, she excretes a lot of mucus, which is absorbed the the sand in the bottom of the nest. We take the sand at the bottom of the original nest and place it at the bottom of the new nest, to me, this has both scientific and sentimental properties. It's possible that the mucus contains elements that are biologically important to the development of the eggs. However, I think of it this way - this egg chamber, these excretions are all this mother can ever give to her babies. Intervening in sea turtle nests is not taken lightly by the coordinators, but it is done when they feel that we can give the babies a better chance for survival by moving them to a more suitable location. Moving the mucus-saturated sand is a small way in which we can take mama's gift and sacrifice with the eggs to the new nest.

You might be wondering how we come across nests when we aren't actually there to watch the female lay her eggs. Well, the morning of my second relocation, I got a few opportunities to see turtle tracks by checking out some false crawls.

Not all false crawl turtle tracks make the typical "U" shape. This mama wandered all over trying to find a suitable place for her nest.

 I guess what I've most learned from watching the females nest is that life goes on. It seems cheesy - but it was a salve on my heart to think that though we lost 2 turtles that day, relocating the nest that was in an improper location may have given 130+ turtle hatchlings a chance to live. It doesn't negate the loss or omit it, but it reminds us that that loss is not the end, and it's not simply a failure, it is only one part of what we do, and we still have opportunities all around us to make a difference for the future of these animals. What we did that day, and what we do each time we experience such a tragedy, as our director Jean tells us, is grieve for those that can't continue on in their struggle, but pick ourselves up and care for those that can.

Back home, my friends and I had this tradition of making a wish at 11:11. That night, after seeing off the nesting female as she took off back out into the black ocean, I looked down at my phone and it was 11:11, but I'd already gotten my wish.