Plastic surgeon Dr. Coleen Stice’s operating schedule Friday will look a bit different than normal: Instead of a sterile surgical suite, she’ll be working at Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Neb. Instead of shaving away hair, she’ll have to deal with feathers. Oh, and the patient will be a bald eagle.
This unlikely doctor-patient relationship made headlines after Stice, who lives in Omaha, performed a mid-July surgery to save the bird’s life. Fishermen had brought the eagle to Nebraska’s Fontenelle Forest’s Raptor Recovery center with an injury on its head that had resulted in a mysterious large black scab. The eagle arrived weak, underfed, and clinging to life.
Stice, a volunteer at Fontenelle Forest, was able to use her medical expertise to pinpoint the cause. “It looked like an electrical burn to me — the soft tissues, the feathers, the scalp, and the first two layers of bone had just been seared off,” said Stice. “The only thing that would do that would be an electrical burn. It looks the same as a human.”
On July 16, Stice removed the dead tissue, and on Friday she will perform a skin graft to cover the wound so that the eagle can be released into the wild.
But the surgery won’t be too out of the ordinary.
“Well, of course, to have an eagle as a patient is something I don’t do every day. But the reconstructive principles are the same,” Stice said.
‘It’ll look like he’s wearing a toupee’
Friday’s surgery on the eagle — appropriately named Bolt — will look a lot like a human plastic surgery, with a few exceptions.
One issue is the risk of infection, as it’s impossible to perform a sterile operation on a wild animal.
“We’re dealing with a pretty dirty animal,” said Stice. “If it were a human, we’d be dealing with a pretty clean … operating room. And the field itself that I’d be operating in would be sterile.”
Sedating an animal is also a bit more challenging. A person would typically first get general anesthesia through an IV and later through a mask. But trying to stick a needle into a fully awake bald eagle didn’t seem like a good idea, so Stice and zoo officials opted to go straight to anesthesia delivered by mask.
Stice plans to cut away skin from the bird’s groin and graft it onto its head. If all goes well, the procedure will last 90 minutes, and the eagle will spend another couple weeks at the zoo recuperating.
And, ultimately, that’ll leave the eagle with a quite distinctive look.
“If this [graft] survives and heals — and I expect it will — he’ll be released with a brown head with white around the fringes,” said Stice. “It’ll look like he’s wearing a toupee.”
Operating on dogs, pigs, and cats
While this has been Stice’s most challenging animal case, it is not her first. She’s fixed cleft palates on dogs, and done minor reconstructive surgery on pigs and cats.
But for Stice, these cases aren’t all that different from her normal work — and it’s evidence, she said, that plastic surgery isn’t limited to the typical “nip and tuck” cosmetic procedures people think of.
“Plastic surgeons get credit for all the face lifts and boob jobs we do, but, for the most part, what we do is reconstructive surgery,” said Stice.
Stice said that she won’t hesitate to help with future cases if the zoo comes calling.
“I’ve seen eagles up close … as a child growing up in Montana. But I’ve never had an opportunity to see and hold an animal like this,” said Stice. “It makes you think differently when you see them up in the air. You know their anatomy better. You know their personalities better.”