When Stella first walked to the emergency room at the Michigan State University Veterinary Center on a Wednesday evening, February 13, 2019, she had second and third degree burns on 10% of her body.
Stella, a 1-year-old Rottweiler female, had miraculously escaped a house fire in Lansing, Michigan while her owners were away. Although she was lucky, she was unable to escape burns to her head, nose, ears, hind ends, and sides of the body, heavy smoke inhalation and difficulty breathing. She also developed ulcers and scars in both eyes from exposure to burns.
For two weeks she fought for her life.
“Stella’s will to live was amazing; she never stopped fighting,” said Rose Wahl, one of the licensed vet technicians who was there when Stella arrived. “Her resilience and strength have amazed everyone who has worked with her.”
The immediate threat to Stella upon arrival was trauma and thermal injuries to her trachea and lungs. So she was given intravenous or intravenous fluids and pure oxygen to ease her breathing. After stabilization, the MSU soft tissue surgery team went to work while ophthalmologists attended to her eye injuries.
“We had to be creative with her burns because of the severe trauma to Stella’s lungs,” said Brea Sandness, a veterinarian and surgeon at MSU. “She wasn’t a great candidate for anesthesia because of her respiratory tract injury.”
At that point, the surgical team turned to a less traditional method – using Icelandic decalcified cod skins donated by Kerecis, a company that develops fish skin products for burns and other medical procedures in humans and animals.
Due to the composition of the tissues and the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in cod skin, these grafts have anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties that are important for healing and tissue regeneration. They also don’t require heavy sedation.
“We were able to put them on top of them with minimal comfort, which not only allowed us to heal them without adding additional stress to their lungs, but also improved the way their burns healed,” Sandness said.
The decalcification of cod hides differentiates them from other fish transplants such as tilapia. While flaky tilapia grafts, which gained national attention during the California wildfires earlier this year, are effective, they act more as an organic shell while the underlying skin heals itself.
According to Sandness, decalcified grafts have been shown to stimulate the production of cells and become functional, living tissue. In Stella’s case, these grafts, which can be changed as often as the burn requires, were absorbed into her body as new tissue grew into the graft.
Today Stella is a relatively active puppy again. But even though her burns heal well, she still struggles with breathing problems that will likely require close monitoring and care for a lifetime.
“Stella is one of the bravest and strongest patients I have ever met,” said Wahl. “Not only did she show incredible endurance and resilience, but she also kept a sweet and friendly demeanor throughout this ordeal.”
Sandness added that, in addition to her lovable personality, Stella’s case, which will be unveiled at the Society of Veterinary Soft Tissue Surgery in June, will spark discussions about the use of fish grafts in veterinary medicine and potentially help other animals who have learned what Stella experienced.
“Stella’s case is an inspiration and her grafts have the potential to be a new and highly effective treatment tool in the veterinary profession,” said Sandness. “She is a living example of how the fire burned inside her more than the fire that hurt her.”