…what it's like to do surgery on an eel? (with Brittany Stevens)

Ever Wonder? / September 29, 2021

…what it's like to do surgery on an eel? (with Brittany Stevens)

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A team works together to spay a rockfish. Notice the yellow shammy under the fish, and the water flowing off the table after running over the fish's gills.

We’re digging into our archives again to bring you more unaired vet stories from our past interview with Dr. Brittany Stevens, a veterinarian here at the Science Center. She takes care of all our animals when they get sick and need to go to the doctor. Last time, Brittany told us all about her vet exam room, how she cares for so many different animals, and even what it’s like to do surgery on fish. 

That last point—doing surgery on fish—is pretty remarkable. And the fish surgery is just the tip of the iceberg—Brittany has some amazing stories of doing surgery on all kinds of animals. Even an eel! 

Do you ever wonder what it’s like to do surgery on an eel? 

You’ll hear Brittany tell us about an eel with a tumor on its head, and what she did next to help it recover. As far as we know, Brittany is the only person in the world who’s successfully done this surgical procedure on an eel! It’s pretty groundbreaking stuff in her field. We recorded Brittany’s story in June 2020, about six months after the eel’s surgery… and we’re happy to report that the eel has now made a full recovery. Big shout out to Brittany and the rest of the aquatics staff and veterinary technicians at the Science Center for their dedicated care of this patient. 

Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to the podcast team to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes. 

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Transcript

Perry Roth-Johnson (00:06): 

Hello! This is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm Perry Roth-Johnson. 

Perry Roth-Johnson (00:13): 

We're digging into our archives again to bring you more unaired vet stories from our past interview with Dr. Brittany Stevens, a veterinarian here at the Science Center. She takes care of all our animals when they get sick and need to go to the doctor. Last time, Brittany told us all about her vet exam room, how she cares for so many different animals and even what it's like to do surgery on fish. That last point—doing surgery on fish—is pretty remarkable, especially to someone like me who doesn't know much about animals. And the fish surgery is just the tip of the iceberg—Brittany has some amazing stories of doing surgery on all kinds of animals. Even an eel! Do you ever wonder what it's like to do surgery on an eel? Well, you're about to hear Brittany tell us all about an eel with a tumor on its head, and what she did next to help it recover. But before we roll the clip, some context: As far as we know, Brittany is the only person in the world who's successfully done this surgical procedure on an eel! It's pretty groundbreaking stuff in her field. We recorded Brittany's story in June 2020, about six months after the eel's surgery... and we are happy to report that the eel has now made a full recovery. Big shout out to Brittany and the rest of the aquatics staff and veterinary technicians at the Science Center for their dedicated care of this patient. Alright, let's roll the clip. 

Perry Roth-Johnson (01:39): 

When we were talking earlier, you mentioned there was another story with an eel, right? That had a fatty tumor on the top of its head. And you remove that. Tell me, tell me that story, like how that came to be and, and what happened. Was the eel ok? 

Brittany Stevens (01:54): 

Yeah. Uh, the eel is doing okay. He's still actually recovering. Um, so the aquarist noticed that this eel was starting to get a mass on the top of his head or just kind of a growth on the top of his head. Um, he didn't seem too affected by it, um, he was still eating, kind of still doing his normal eel thing. Um, but eventually it got to a point where it was just so big. It was starting to push down kind of over the top of his eyes. And he also started to have some problems with his buoyancy. Um, we have had this problem in the past, um, here at the California Science Center of eels getting fatty tumors on the top of their heads. Um, eels in captivity tend to have a little bit more trouble with managing a healthy weight because, um, in the wild they're ambush predators, they live kind of in their little caves or holes and they just go out and opportunistically grab something as it kind of sort of spy. However, here in the aquarium, we have very nice divers that offer them tasty treats right into their mouth. So they don't have to work for it at all. And they get fed quite regularly, you know, usually about three times a week versus potentially in the wild, they might only eat once a week. Um, so we know about it and we're trying to manage their diet. The problem is if you don't feed them enough, they get cranky, and then, then they start nibbling on your fish and causing problems that way. So, we have to find balance. So unfortunately, um, yeah, some of our eels have had these fatty tumors, um, appear on the top of their heads previously. So, um, this one is actually a recurrence. He was a repeat offender. He had it removed, um, I think two or three years ago. And then unfortunately it grew back. Um, but we decided to go ahead and remove it, um, for him. Um, so he came down to the vet room. Um, we set him up on the anesthesia system and I think it was about, I want to say like a three or four hour surgery, um, actually remove this, um, tumor from the top of his head. It was about, I don't know, five inches across or so, so pretty good size. Um, and the problem was that once we had all that tissue removed, it was very difficult to get the skin to close back together. Um, cause we had to remove such a large amount. So that was kind of the major portion of the surgery. And unfortunately about six weeks after, um, he had the surgery, the skin on the top of his head was not healing appropriately. Um, and it actually, um, the sutures broke apart and then wound opened back up. So, at that point it was actually kind of a, a big bummer cause I didn't have any more healthy skin that I could use to kind of pull it back together. And so what we actually did was, um, once again, this is me being a maverick and enjoying new and, and challenging, um, situations. I have done skin grafts on dogs and raccoons before, um, but I have not done one on the eel. But I was once again saying, you know what, medicine is medicine. If you can do it on a dog, you can probably do it on an eel. So we ended up harvesting some skin from the back, from his back, um, and we took that skin and placed it on the top of his head and sutured it in place. And I really didn't know if it was going to work or not, but it ended up working out great. So actually now it's starting to look beautiful and get the same coloration, um, as you know, normal skin and everything. It's kind of funny 'cause he has different patterns. Now he has back pattern skin on the top of his head, but that's kind of cool. He's still, um, got a couple of sutures in that, you know, taking its time to heal as eels do. Um, they are cold water species that have very low metabolic rates. So it takes them a lot longer than it would, say, a mammal to heal from something like surgery, but slowly but surely doing it, which is great. 

Perry Roth-Johnson (05:47): 

Wow. So you might be the only person in the world that's done an eel skin graft. 

Brittany Stevens (05:52): 

I think so. 

Perry Roth-Johnson (05:53): 

At least that you're aware of. 

Brittany Stevens (05:57): 

Yeah. 

Perry Roth-Johnson (05:58): 

That's our show, and thanks for listening! Until next time, keep wondering. Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, Perry Roth-Johnson, along with Devin Waller and Jennifer Aguirre. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop new episodes every other Wednesday. If you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people discover our show. Have a question you've been wondering about? Send an email or voice recording to everwonder@californiasciencecenter.org to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.