Falcon couldn't see. Now it flies with better eyes.
With a huff, and a puff, and a turn of her head to the side, Banner the lanner falcon announced Monday afternoon that yes, she had made it through her surgery just fine, thank you. Would everyone please stop staring at her now?
Banner belongs to Jim and Nancy Cowan at the New Hampshire School of Falconry in Deering. She is the first falcon in the world to have cataract surgery. Shes had a cataract in each of her eyes for almost two years, and without her sight, she hasnt been able to hunt or even fly.
Monday, a team of veterinarians and veterinary technicians carefully drugged her. Then they cut into her cornea, removed the cloudy protein and implanted a uniquely designed artificial lens. Finally, they sewed her cornea shut again.
It amazes me how strong she is, Nancy Cowan said as she watched Banners clear dark eyes scan the crowded hallway. Lanners have a reputation as quiet birds, and I think it works for her, that temperament, that shes a bit sweeter than other falcons.
Banners ground-breaking surgery was originally scheduled for February. It was postponed several times as the team worked to perfect the shape and size of the artificial lens. They had to battle health problems of their own as well. George Messenger of Fisherville Animal Hospital, who supervised the anesthesia, underwent heart surgery this summer. Ruth Marrion, a Massachusetts-based veterinary ophthalmologist, performed the surgery while seated. She broke her leg last month.
Seven people hovered over Banner in the operating room. Dozens more in Montreal, California, Ohio, Germany and Abu Dhabi were involved in designing the artificial lenses. They had to match precise measurements.
I-Med, a Canadian ophthalmology supply manufacturer, donated the lenses. They are about 6 millimeters wide. Capital Area Veterinary Emergency Services in Concord donated the operating room and supplies. Messenger and Marrion both donated their time preparing for the main event.
A lens has two parts. One is a thin covering called the capsule, which is like a baggie. Then there's the contents, which are normally clear like a raw egg white. The dense contents help the eye focus light and draw crisp images to the optic nerve.
A lens with a cataract is like a baggie filled with cooked egg white. It lets only limited light through to the nerve.
Marrion cut a tiny hole through the baggie and vacuumed out the opaque contents. Then, she folded the flexible artificial lens, slipped it through the small hole and placed it in the baggie. It should hold it in place as if it were spring-loaded.
The hourlong surgery went smoothly and the vets and technicians chatted as each step went exactly according to plan.
But Messenger wasnt ready to celebrate until after the very last step. That was to remove the breathing tube in Banners throat. The tube allowed them to pump anesthesia to her. The process is crucially important and incredibly delicate, he said.
Its called last stitch syndrome. Youre suturing someone up and on that last stitch, it could all go wrong, he said.
But a few minutes later, Shaela Messenger, the veterinary technician, calmly whispered to George Messenger. The bird wasnt waking up, and the two walked silently to the incubator. In the dark heated cage, Banner could stay warm without being held, and she might be more likely to wake up, they said.
Cowan pulled on her falconers glove and shifted her weight impatiently. Banner, still wrapped in the towel, opened her feathered eyelids halfway and waggled her head side to side. Then, she stood, wobbling a little, puffed out her chest and stretched her wings. They filled the cage.
Within minutes, Cowan reached into the incubator and loaded Banner onto the glove.
Theyll have to give her anti-inflammatory eye drops for a few weeks. And make sure her eyelids dont become too irritated by the sutures in her corneas. The Cowans both cried with relief at the first sign Banner had survived the surgery.
When we first started looking for help, we heard a lot of anecdotal, well, it cant be done, Jim Cowan said.
As Nancy Cowan held the bird on her glove, Jim Cowan shook a leather tassel a few feet away. He smiled gleefully when Banner turned toward it.
You can see something all right, he said. You can see something.
Critical thinking challenge: What did Dr. Messenger mean by Last Stitch Syndrome? Could it apply to any process other than surgery? If so, what?