Carmel Valley urologist helps save SeaWorld’s beloved matriarch, Dottie the dolphin
By Arthur Lightbourn
A year ago last January, UCSD urologist Dr. Roger Sur received a phone call from SeaWorld.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “You want me to operate on a dolphin?”
They weren’t kidding.
Dottie, the 23-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin star of SeaWorld San Diego, was dying. The normally energetic, fun-loving matriarchal sea mammal wasn’t eating and wouldn’t even let her trainers touch her.
SeaWorld’s senior veterinarian Dr. Todd Schmitt immediately ordered a blood test and discovered that her blood was toxic and her kidneys were shutting down. Schmitt decided to reach out for help beyond the world of animal medicine to the human world by calling UCSD Medical Center specialists.
UCSD nephrologist Dr. David Ward was brought in and tried something never performed before on a dolphin — kidney dialysis to cleanse her blood,
The dialysis helped but wasn’t a long- term solution. An ultrasound revealed a kidney stone in Dottie’s left and right kidney. One of the stones passed naturally, but the other was stuck, and she was not able to urinate, a condition, which, if untreated, would be fatal.
That’s when Dr. Sur was called.
He specializes in minimally invasive, robot-assisted kidney-stone surgery.
Sur, 44, a former U.S. Navy physician, is assistant professor of surgery at UCSD’s department of urology and director of the UCSD Comprehensive Kidney Stone Center, the only institute of its kind in Southern California.
“Dottie had actually gone into cardiac arrest moments before I got there,” Sur recalled.
In his career, Sur had dissolved more than 1,000 kidney stones in human patients, all under anesthetic, but never on a 450-pound sea mammal that had to be hoisted out of her pool, placed on an operating table, and couldn’t be sedated because of her unstable condition.
“She was so out of it and near death, she couldn’t even fight,” he said.
Her trainers steadied her, stroked to comfort her and poured water over her while Sur operated.
He first attempted to insert a stent, a flexible, hollow, plastic tube, inside the estimated length of Dottie’s ureter, between the kidney and bladder, to temporarily ensure drainage of urine until the stone could be removed, but it was too short and got sucked up into the ureter.
“I lost the stent in a 450-pound dolphin,” he said. “Oh, my god.”
Dottie was returned to her back area pool.
Fortunately, the stent provided some relief for Dottie by providing a drainage channel bypassing the obstruction.
Sur returned the following day with a long narrow scope to reach directly up into Dottie’s bladder. The tiny scope located the obstructing stone, and Sur threaded a laser fiber up through the scope into the bladder, and laser-pulverized the stone.
Then, Sur took a grasper, sent it up through the scope and retrieved the original lost stent.
He had performed the world’s first endoscopic laser lithotripsy on a dolphin.
The procedure took about 20 minutes.
“It felt like 20 hours,” Sur said.
Dottie’s recovery took several months, but SeaWorld veterinarians report Dottie’s kidneys are functioning well and she has regained the 40 pounds she lost during her illness.
We interviewed Sur, 44, at his home in Carmel Valley’s Torrey Hills which he shares with his wife, Erin, and their two young children.
We caught him on his academic day off between an early morning surgery at UCSD’s hospital in Hillcrest and an interview with a fellowship candidate scheduled for later in the day.
Sur’s heritage is Korean on his father’s side and Chinese on his mother’s. At 5-foot-8 and a trim 160 pounds, he keeps in shape surfing and swimming.
He’s the kind of guy who greets his 7-year-old son with a feigned karate kick followed by a hug and a kiss.
Sur was born in Frankfurt, Germany, “actually in a taxi cab en route to the U.S. Army hospital in Frankfurt.” His electrical engineer father was a civilian contractor to the Army.
Sur was raised in New Jersey and Maryland.
He earned his B.S. degree in honors chemistry on a four-year Army ROTC scholarship program at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and his medical degree in 1993 from Eastern Virginia Medical School on a four-year Navy Health Professions Scholarship.
As a result, he had no debt coming out of medical school, “but in return I did serve 15 years of active duty,” he said. He is currently a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves.
He went on to complete his surgery internship and urology residency at the Naval Medical Center San Diego, followed by a fellowship in endourology (treating urological diseases with scopes)/laparoscopy (robot-assisted surgery) at Duke University Medical Center, 2004-2006.
At Duke, he studied under Dr. Glenn Preminger, renowned for his medical and surgical management of kidney-stone and other urological diseases.
“If you have a kidney stone,” Sur said, “your chance of recurrence is 50 percent over the next five to 10 years. So it’s almost guaranteed you’ll have another one unless you do something to prevent it.”
That’s why, he says, his continuing focus will be on the surgical treatment, medical prevention and research into the causes of kidney stones at UCSD’s Comprehensive Kidney Stone Center where he serves as founding director.
Name: Roger L. Sur, M.D.
Distinction: Board certified urologist Dr. Roger Sur is an assistant professor of surgery at UCSD’s Division of Urology and director of the UCSD Comprehensive Kidney Stone Center, the only institute of its kind in Southern California dedicated to patients suffering from kidney stones.
Resident of: Carmel Valley
Born: Frankfurt, Germany.
Education: B.S. in honors chemistry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1988; M.D., Eastern Virginia Medical School, 1993; surgery internship, 1993-94, and urology residency, 1997-2002, Naval Medical Center San Diego; fellowship in endourology (treating urological diseases with scopes)/laparoscopy (robotics surgery), Duke University Medical Center, 2004-2006.
Family: He and his wife, Erin, have been married 10 years. They have two children: son, Jacob, 7; and daughter, Arden, 4 1/2.
Interests: Early-morning surfing and swimming
Favorite TV: Sports and “American Idol”
Favorite film: “Braveheart,” 1995 epic historical film starring Mel Gibson.
Favorite vacations: Costa Rica and Hawaii
Philosophy: “Strong believer in Christianity …. and that character is king. Some say cash is king. Not so, character trumps everything else.”
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