CHAPEL HILL — Seventeen years after Zandra Talbert's son Patrick filled his aquarium with goldfish, only a comet named Frank remains in the 55-gallon tank in their Chapel Hill home.
"He is cute and has big googly eyes. He comes up and says hi if you come to look at him, and he knows when suppertime is," said Zandra Talbert, who also has a dog, two very old cockatiels and three cats. And, a husband, Richard.
In September Zandra noticed a dime-size bump on Frank's left side.
She call Erik Dorsch, a veterinarian at the Animal Hospital of Carrboro and a lifelong fish hobbyist.
"I've always had an aquarium and when I went to Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine, I entered with the intention of becoming an aquatic veterinarian," Dorsch said.
He spent his fourth year shadowing aquatic veterinarians at Baltimore's National Aquarium and other places. He also learned from Greg Lewbart, a professor at the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine who specializes in aquatic, wildlife and zoologic medicine.
Dorsch told Zandra that Frank's growth could eventually affect his swimming and quality of life. "I told her we could try and take it off," said Dorsch, who had never operated on fish but learned in his internships how to anesthetize them.
Dorsch called Shane Christian, the aquatic animal medicine technician at N.C. State, and sent him an article on anesthetizing fish. He and Lewbart donated the anesthesia, a powder put in the water containing the fish. The fish falls to the bottom as the anesthesia takes effect.
"It is trial and error since different species have different sensitivities," Dorsch explained. "Once the fish is on the bottom and its respiration rate slows, you have to feel how anesthetized it is."
The day of the surgery, per Dorsch's instructions, Zandra carried Frank in a 5-gallon bucket lined with a plastic bag partially filled with his aquarium water. Dorsch sprinkled in powder until he knew Frank wouldn't wiggle during surgery.
"My greatest fear going into the surgery was that Frank wouldn't wake up," Dorsch said. "I didn't have any worries about the surgery as it was very straightforward."
Once Frank was sedated and taken out of the water, Dorsch removed the tumor using a carbon dioxide laser. Its beam of invisible light cuts tissue like a scalpel.
"But it cauterizes as it goes, so there is less bleeding, and it cauterizes nerve endings, so it doesn't hurt as much as a scalpel," he said.
Dorsch cut the tumor off at scale level, flush with Frank's body. He didn't want to cut into the fish's body cavity because he wouldn't be able to stitch him up afterward.
To help Frank breathe, technician Taylor Kennedy squirted water from his travel bucket into his mouth.
"Frank was out for two minutes at the most," Dorsch said.
The three-quarter inch tumor was a fibrosarcoma, which is malignant in people, dogs and cats. There are few data, but Lewbart said some fibrosarcomas are superficial and fish do well for a long time.
Dorsch checked and found the oldest goldfish on record was 42.
Frank now has a chance to break that record.