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.


  1. This is so wonderfully written, as usual. I was emotional just reading it! You captured the beautiful and sometimes tragic essence of what you're doing, perfectly. You are amazing. <3

    P.S. When you were talking about turtles that beat the odds, I was reminded of Carolina (I think that was her name?) that you told me about earlier. Is she still around?

    1. Yes, North Carolina has an amazing story that I intend to write about soon. She is doing very well, and we're planning on releasing her soon!

  2. Hi Brie I love reading about your work there. I adopted Oceans 11 awhile back and I understand she had surgery this week. Where? Is she okay? I hope she'll be able to be released soon.

    I'm writing a little feature about the hospital for Encore next week, and I'd like to refer to your blog if that's okay.

    thanks for all you do!
    Kass Fincher

    1. Hey Kass, thanks for reading! Oceans' surgery has been postponed, but will be done up at NC State vet school where our primary vet works full time. It would be great if you included my blog, if you get a chance I'd love a link to check it out!

  3. Hi Brie,

    I loved reading this! You capture what so many of us feel and you share it with the world. Thank you. A dear friend sent me a quote this week that I was reminded of as I read your story:

    "I cannot do
    All the good
    That the world needs
    But the world needs all the good that I can do."

    --Jana Stanfield
    in "All the Good"

    See you soon.