How far did a family go for a goldfish?
Carly Q. Romalino, Courier-Post
Published 12:42 p.m. ET Dec. 14, 2016 | Updated 1:36 p.m. ET Dec. 19, 2016
MOUNT LAUREL - For once, being a fish out of water actually saved a goldfish's life.
In a rare laser surgery on an 11-inch fantail goldfish, the patient — Winston — lay on the Mount Laurel Animal Hospital operating table as doctors removed a quarter-size tumor.
When the fish — America's No. 1 pet — awoke from anesthesia minutes after hitting the water again, Dr. Colin McDermott was confident the unusual operation went swimmingly.
McDermott is the only veterinarian listed by the American Association of Fish Veterinarians in New Jersey.
That's why Tina Petrillo, 16, convinced her father to drive Winston — in a fish tank inside of a box, wedged securely with towels in the back seat of Pat Petrillo's car — at least an hour from Jamesburg to Mount Laurel.
"My dad was driving very cautiously," Tina said.
"I called so many different animal hospitals. They said they don't take care of goldfish."
She was redirected to facilities all over the state. And if she wasn't redirected, the high school junior was discouraged by estimates to remove the tumor.
"They said procedures like this could cost thousands of dollars. That's when I lost hope a little bit," Tina told the Courier-Post.
"I figured there was no way we could afford this."
Eight years ago, Tina and her sister picked a goldfish out of a tank of small goldfish at a Middlesex County PetSmart. Her sister picked one that looked like the rest — white and orange.
Winston was brown and looked sick in comparison to the little shiny fish zooming from corner to corner of the shop tank, the teen remembered.
"He was the only one that was not gold," Tina's mom Patty Petrillo said.
"She said, 'That's why I want him. He is unique.'"
Winston has outgrown three tanks, and outlived her sister's white and orange fish. Tina added another goldfish — Buster — to the tank as a companion.
When a deformity on Winston's scales appeared last year, the teen watched it grow. By September, the growth rate sped up. Winston could barely muster energy to swim. He stopped racing to the top of the tank at feeding time. And if he did manage to move, the fish would bump the tumor on the tank wall, and the mass would bleed.
"Buster would swim with him in the tank to make sure he's OK," Tina said.
Winston spent more time at the bottom of the tank, weighed down by the tumor and exhausted by attempts to pull the mass through the water with him.
"I don't get to do a whole lot of fish surgery," McDermott said.
Winston's mass was a skin tumor that appeared to be painful and uncomfortable. It was easily removed with a laser, but preparing the fish for surgery was a process rarely performed on pet fish in New Jersey, the doctor said.
Hospital staff added an anesthetic to water in a sterile tank. As Winston sucked the water in through his gills, it put the goldfish to sleep. When he was floating, asleep in the water, but still breathing, McDermott gently pulled him from the tank, and rested him on the operating table's non-abrasive cloth made to protect his natural mucus coating.
For the mere minutes he was out of water, assistants used syringes to flush anesthetic water over Winston's gills to keep him sedated and breathing out of the tank. The laser removed the tumor while cauterizing his small wound.
When the mass was gone, McDermott put a little foam pad over the wound — a goldfish bandage. Winston got an antibiotic shot, and was gently re-submerged in his tank of fresh water.
The 40-minute procedure from anesthesia to bandage cost the Petrillos about $300, McDermott said.
Fish like Winston can live for 20 to 30 years if well cared for, the doctor explained.
"They have personalities. They respond to certain people in certain ways," McDermott said.
"We're learning a lot about these animals and theses species and our medicine is improving."
Access to breed and care information online has helped pet owners learn about their aquatic pets' needs, and research doctors, he said.
While fish are among the nation's top household pets, "a lot of veterinarians aren't trained in fish medicine," McDermott said.
"It's not taught in vet school," said the doctor, a former veterinary fellow at the National Aquarium.
Yet, at least one appointment every week at Mount Laurel Animal Hospital is for a fish, according to McDermott.
"I find the people coming in are the ones who are attached to the fish on a personal level," he said.
Tina fell in love with Winston.
"She loves him to death. He's part of our family," Patty Petrillo said.
In the week since surgery, Tina keeps up with salting the water to prevent infection and help his small wound heal.
"His buddy Buster was so happy to have him home," Tina said.
"As soon as we put him back in the tank, Buster was all over him. He knew he was gone, and we could tell he was pretty excited for him."
Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; firstname.lastname@example.org