D. E. Larsen, DVM
We were right in the middle of a story when the phone rang. Rod was closest, so he picked up the call. Everyone else on night duty tried to look busy. Our last couple of years in Vet School was a little more strenuous than regular college. Clinic rotations made it like an 8:00 to 5:00 job—actually, an 8:00 to 5:00 job that started about 6:30 and lasted until 7:00. Then every couple of months, you had a week of night duty with 10 seniors and 10 juniors. Most of the time, we were busy, but there were many slow hours. We were at the hospital until midnight, then on call for the rest of the night.
Rod hung the phone up and called Dr. Snow on the intercom. We had two interns on nights with us, one large animal intern, and one small animal intern.
“Dr. Snow, you have a turtle on the way in for an emergency exam,” Rod said on the intercom. “The lady wants to know if it is alive or not.”
Several of us headed to the small animal section to help with the call. This sounded interesting.
When Hazel and Matt came through the door, they actually had a small desert tortoise in Hazel’s hands. She was supporting it chin as the tortoise appeared limp.
We ushered them into an exam room and placed the tortoise on the exam table. I put a towel under the tortoise and positioned its legs and head in what appeared to be a comfortable position.
Dr. Snow came in and introduced himself. Dr. Snow was known to the students to be sort of a flake. A flake, but also pretty knowledgable about species that we would never see in a practice situation.
“Tell me about Henry’s problem,” Dr. Snow said to Hazel.
“Well, last night, when I was feeding him his vegetables, I noticed that he had a little bit of a runny nose,” Hazel said. “He has never been sick since we have had him, which is about 3 years.”
“So last night he had a runny nose, and tonight he looks dead,” Dr. Snow said. “What happened between then and now?”
“I knew I had to give him some medicine last night,” Hazel said. “I searched through our stockpile of old medication. The only thing I could find was some Phenobarbital. It was given to help me sleep when I was sick a couple of years ago. Or I think that is what it was given to me for. Anyway, that is what I gave him. But I thought he was smaller than me, so I cut the pill in half.”
“You gave him 125 mg of Phenobarbital for his runny nose?” Dr. Snow asked.
“Yes, that is about right,” Hazel said. “Do you think that was alright?”
“Looking at Henry, I would guess, No, that was not alright,” Dr. Snow said.
“I just want to know for sure if he is dead before we bury him,” Matt said.
“The problem is that Phenobarbital is known to put some reptiles into hibernation,” Dr. Snow said. “We might have some difficulty deciding between death and hibernation.”
We turned Henry over and listened, but could not hear any heart sounds. We clipped a toenail and did get a drop of blood.
“Maybe we could try to get an electrocardiogram on him,” Dr. Snow said.
“Oh, how much is that going to cost?” Hazel asked. “We are on a pretty limited budget, that is why we tried to treat his runny nose ourselves.”
“A phone call would have been a good idea,” Dr. Snow said. “We are pretty free with information around here. Whoever may not have known what to give a tortoise for a respiratory infection, but they would have known that Phenobarbital was not a good idea.”
“What are we to do now?” Hazel asked.
“Okay, I will let these students take Henry in the back, see if they can detect a heartbeat,” Dr. Snow said. “If we do that, you have to promise you will not tell anyone here in the hospital that I did that, or I will get into trouble. Do you agree with that?”
“That sounds fair,” Hazel said. “How are they going to find a heartbeat?”
“We will try to get an electrocardiogram on him,” Rod said. “If we use some needles as electrodes, that should be pretty sensitive.”
“Okay, but will you hurt him,” Hazel said.
“He is going to have a few needle pokes,” I said. “But in his condition, he won’t feel a thing. We will have him back here in a couple of minutes.”
We picked up Henry carefully and moved him back to the treatment room. We used aluminum needles, poked through the skin, and hooked the leads of the ECG to the needle hubs.
“We just need to do a lead two,” Rod said. “Any wiggle will mean he might be alive.”
There was not much on the tracing. But every once in awhile, there was a small blimp.
“What does an ECG on a tortoise in hibernation look like?” I asked.
We settled the question by handing the strip to Dr. Snow when we returned Henry to the exam room.
“There is not much here to suggest he is alive,” Dr. Snow said. “But I have to admit, I do see a regular deflection that occurs about 2 or 3 times a minute. I think Henry is in very deep hibernation. I doubt is he will wake up from it.”
“Just what are you saying, young man,” Matt asked.
“I think Henry is near death,” Dr. Snow said. “I don’t think he is going to wake up. I think he will be dead by this time tomorrow.”
“So, I guess I should plan to bury him tomorrow,” Matt said.
“But what if you are wrong, Doctor,” Hazel.
“The other thing to do is to take Henry home, make him comfortable on the kitchen counter, and if he starts to smell, you can feel better about burying him,” Dr. Snow said.