07/21/2010 at 02:06 PM EDT
Most guests who visit SeaWorld San Diego
don't know what happened to Dottie the dolphin just six months ago.
They see the 23-year-old Atlantic bottlenose dolphin swimming along a pool, splashing passers-by and jumping through the air. They watch her feed on fish and look out for her 2-year-old son, Cortez. She's fin-to-fin spunky. She runs the show.
But six months ago, she almost died.
In January, trainers at the theme park noticed Dottie had stopped eating. Through blood samples, they discovered that the dolphin went into acute kidney failure because of complications from kidney stones. When Dottie didn't respond to the fluid therapy used in an attempt to flush out her kidneys, Dr. Todd Schmitt, SeaWorld's senior veterinarian, knew he needed to act quickly to save the dolphin's life.
"In the wild, if you show weakness, you'll be food," Schmitt tells PEOPLEPets.com. "Most of the aquatic animals have evolved with that nature. They mask their illnesses so well."
Schmitt sought the assistance of the UC-San Diego Medical Center
, and in late January Dottie was put on dialysis – a first for her kind. And although the 450-lb. dolphin's condition began to slightly improve, more treatment would be needed before Dottie could make her way back to the SeaWorld interaction pool.
SeaWorld teamed up with Dr. Roger Sur, director of the UCSD Comprehensive Kidney Stone Center
, to remove the obstructing stones. This would be another first: Sur had never performed a medical procedure on an animal, never mind a dolphin.
"I had to ask them to repeat the question; I was really thrown," Sur tells PEOPLEPets.com. "[The prospect] was challenging, exciting – and scary."
Her condition was so unstable, they couldn't risk giving her an anesthetic, and this could have been dangerous – for Sur.
"If at any point she decided to kick me, I was right next to her fluke – 500 lbs. verses 160," he says. "But she didn't really fight me very much. She had nothing really left in her to fight."
Two operations later – a cystosopy and an ureteroscopy – Sur had broken up Dottie's kidney stones. The dolphin's renal health began to slowly improve, and months of anti-bacterial and anti-fungal medication have helped her recoup.
Although she's back in the pool with her son, Dottie continues to be monitored through ultrasound, urinalysis and blood samples. Follow-up exams revealed that she has additional stones, and Sur, inspired by the experience, is currently researching the development of kidney stones in dolphins.
"I think that it shows how similar we are in many ways – a lot of things we do to humans we can do to animals," Sur says.
Sur has had many patients throughout his career, but Dottie has left her fin-print.
"She'll probably be the one I'll never forget," he says, reminiscing about the trip he took to SeaWorld post-operation to check on Dottie. "It's not every day you operate on a dolphin."See more dolphins on PEOPLEPets.com:Dolphin Plays with iPad – in the Name of SciencePretty in Pink: Albino Dolphin Spotted in Louisiana