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Deering bird survives world’s first-ever falcon cataract surgery

Last modified: 7/13/2015 3:57:02 PM
With a huff, and a puff, and a cock of her head to the side, Banner the lanner falcon announced yesterday at 4 p.m. that yes, she had made it through her surgery just fine, thank you. Would everyone please stop staring at her now?

Banner, who belongs to Jim and Nancy Cowan at the New Hampshire School of Falconry in Deering, is the first falcon in the world to have cataract surgery. She’s had a cataract in each of her eyes for almost two years, and without her sight, she hasn’t been able to hunt or even fly.

Yesterday, a team of veterinarians and veterinary technicians carefully drugged her, cut into her cornea, removed the cloudy protein and implanted a uniquely designed artificial lens, and sewed her cornea shut again.

“It amazes me how strong she is,” Nancy Cowan said as she watched Banner’s clear dark eyes scan the crowded hallway. “Lanners have a reputation as quiet birds, and I think it works for her, that temperament, that she’s a bit sweeter than other falcons.”

Banner’s ground-breaking surgery was originally scheduled for February, but was postponed several times as the team worked to perfect the shape and size of the artificial lens, and battled health problems of their own. George Messenger of Fisherville Animal Hospital, who supervised the anesthesia, underwent heart surgery this summer, and Ruth Marrion, a Massachusetts-based veterinary ophthalmologist, performed the surgery yesterday seated, because she broke her leg last month.

Seven people hovered over Banner in the operating room yesterday, and dozens more – in Montreal, California, Ohio, Germany and Abu Dhabi – were involved in designing the artificial lenses, which had to match precise measurements.

I-Med, a Canadian ophthalmology supply manufacturer, donated the lenses, which 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 yesterday and at several appointments over the summer preparing for the main event.

A lens has two parts: a thin covering called the capsule, which is like a baggie, and 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, letting 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, which 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 wasn’t ready to celebrate until after the very last step – extubating, or removing the breathing tube in Banner’s throat that allowed them to pump anesthesia to her. The process is crucially important and incredibly delicate, he said.

“It’s called last stitch syndrome: You’re suturing someone up and on that last stitch, it could all go wrong,” he said.

He had to suck on the tube as he withdrew it to ensure mucus that had built up inside it wouldn’t fall into her throat and block her airway. Then, veterinary technician Shaela Messenger wrapped the bird in a pink towel and carried her out into the hallway. The Cowans and all of the veterinary staff smiled and chatted.

But a few minutes later, Shaela calmly whispered to George Messenger that the bird wasn’t waking up, and the two walked silently and purposefully to the incubator. In the dark heated cage, Banner could stay warm without being held, and might be more likely to wake up, they said.

Cowan pulled on her falconer’s glove and shifted her weight impatiently from one foot to the other. 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, filling the cage.

Within minutes, Cowan reached into the incubator and loaded Banner onto the glove.

They’ll have to give her anti-inflammatory eye drops for a few weeks and make sure her eyelids don’t 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 can’t be done,’ ” Jim Cowan said.

As Nancy held the bird on her glove, he shook a leather tassel a few feet away, and smiled gleefully when Banner turned toward it.

“You can see something all right,” he said. “You can see something.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)


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