When Dr. Andrew Haas, pulmonologist from the University of Pennsylvania got a phone call about a dolphin that needed his help, he was more than surprised. "I thought it actually was a practical joke when I got the phone call."
Dr. Haas is one of six physicians, who took part in a first-of-its-kind surgery, using human technology to treat a dolphin who was having trouble breathing.
Sarah, who is 29 years old, is a therapy dolphin at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Florida.
"Sarah has worked with children and veterans and brings them joy everyday," said Deena Hoagland, Director of Island Dolphin Care.
She says Sarah was chosen for this type of work because of her kind personality, patience and willingness to work with people.
"When doctors said she needed this procedure it just made sense to do whatever we needed to do to help her," said Hoagland.
The 370-pound dolphin is trained to jump onto a sling, so doctors carried her from her lagoon home to a temperature-controlled procedure area where she was sedated.
The surgery was similar to an angioplasty done in humans, a procedure used to open up narrow or blocked arteries, but in Sarah's case, it was her airway that needed to expand.
"Once in the airways themselves, it looks exactly the same, more or less, than human airways," said Dr. Haas, who says they had to go through Sarah's blowhole instead of going through the nose or mouth like they do with humans.
Dr. Haas said they used high-pressure balloons to stretch out Sarah's airway to a larger size. He says they are hopeful this is a permanent fix to her breathing problem.
"She is doing great," said Dr. Haas who gets frequent updates from Island Dolphin Care. "In humans, probably about half of the patients have one procedure and that's it."
The University of Pennsylvania doctor says he was grateful for the opportunity to help out. "In addition to just a dolphin in distress, there's the fact that they are using these dolphins in therapy for children with mental and physical disabilities."
Although he never had a dolphin encounter like this before meeting Sarah, he now feels a special bond with her and tells us what happened when he went to visit a few days after the surgery.
"She literally popped her head up and followed me all the way around the lagoon," said Dr. Haas, "It did seem like there was some type of connection there."
Dr. Haas, center, watches as Sarah is put back into the water after surgery
Veterinarian Dr. Michael Renner during Sarah's surgery