Nightly News   |  May 31, 2013

Doctors perform breakthrough dolphin surgery

Sarah, a 29-year-old dolphin, spent years working with children before her health began to fail. Tests revealed one of her airways had closed off 80 percent, so doctors used advances in human medicine to help her. NBC’s Kerry Sanders reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> finally tonight let's try to end on an up note with all that's going on. you have heard of therapy dogs . this story is about a therapy dolphin that had been around for decades working with disabled children, until the dolphin got sick. nbc's kerry sanders has our report from florida tonight on her remarkable journey back to health with a little help from her friends. [ clicking ]

>> reporter: sarah the dolphin has spent years working with children. earlier this month that was in jeopardy when trainers noticed sarah couldn't breathe. at 29 years old the dolphin's breathing was as labored as a human with a severe case of emphysema. tests revealed one of her two airways had closed off 80%. your fear was --

>> what if this was something really bad?

>> reporter: dino hogland runs island doll lynn care in the florida keys . every day her team pairs sarah with children for therapy. when sarah started getting weaker they knew something had to be done and fast. sarah was rushed to the hospital. at 370 pounds and nine feet long, she was sedated and given a c.a.t. scan in a machine normally used for humans. veterinarians and people who treat for lung disease decided to try a technique used on humans similar to angioplasty.

>> we put a balloon down there to open the airway. when the operation is going on --

>> anxious moments?

>> definitely. i will even go so far as saying scar scary. it's never been done before.

>> reporter: hours later, sarah was back in the water, breathing normally. great news for randy kirsh. almost eight years ago, randy, who was born with down's syndrome, was gaining confidence through therapy with sarah .

>> what do you say to sarah ?

>> i love you.

>> reporter: now the two are back together celebrating sarah 's new lease on life. what do you say to sarah ?

>> she's the best dolphin.

>> reporter: the best dolphin in the world?

>> yeah.

>> reporter: the prognosis -- absent complications, sarah is now expected to live another 20 to 30