By Manuel Rueda
JUNO BEACH, Fla (Reuters) - A plucky sea turtle has been released back into the wild off Florida's coast after months of intensive medical care to reverse damage caused by the propellers of a wayward motorboat.
The release of Andre, a green turtle named after U.S. wrestling star Andre the Giant, marked a rare success story for the state's endangered sea turtles.
Hundreds of dead, sick or injured turtles are found on Florida's beaches every year because of run-ins with speedboats, entanglement in fishing lines and sudden changes in water temperature.
Marked with a distinctive bar code before his release, his supporters see him as a poster-child for the reptiles fighting to survive challenges, including climate change, in tropical and subtropical waters everywhere.
Some 500 people showed up to cheer as Andre made his triumphant return on Wednesday to the Atlantic Ocean from the care of the Loggerhead Marine Life Center, in Juno Beach, Florida.
It took six volunteers to hoist him off a trailer before plunking him down at the water's edge.
"It's been such a process just to get to this point," said Melissa Ranley, coordinator of the Marine Life Center's turtle hospital. "We've all grown to love him so much, and he's been a big part of our lives for the past 13 months."
Discovered on a sandbar in June 2010, Andre had major injuries to his shell that exposed parts of his spinal cord and one lung. Dr. Nancy Mettee, staff veterinarian at the Marine Life Center, removed three pounds of sand from his wounds and a live crab from a cavity inside his shell.
"The fact that he was alive at all was a miracle," Mettee said.
State-of-the-art medical procedures, usually reserved for humans, helped put him back together again. These included so-called VAC therapy, featuring patches that create small vacuums around wounds to help them heal faster.
The patch provider, Kinetic Concepts, also equipped Andre's doctors with small skin grafts known as Strattice Reconstructive Tissue Matrix implants to help put Andre on the mend. Normally reserved for reconstructive breast surgery and hernia operations, the implants helped tissue around Andre's injuries to regenerate.
In another innovative medical technique, Dr. Alberto Vargas, a Florida dentist, said he used custom-made palate expanders on Andre's shell to help seal it back together.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Johnston)