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Lights! Cameras! Laser! : Boa Is a Pussycat at Media Circus

Times Staff Writer

The doctors said Sid Vicious, the snake, was a perfect patient. But dealing with the news media, they said, was a zoo.

Sid Vicious, an 8-foot boa constrictor owned by Mission Viejo High School, underwent laser treatment at UC Irvine on Thursday afternoon for cancer of the mouth. Laser specialists and veterinarians working on the snake proclaimed the therapy a success.

But “the flash cameras in the operating room were driving me crazy,” one veterinarian said.

Journalists from four television stations, one independent network and assorted newspapers converged on the Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic at UCI. Because the operating room was small, the university set up a pool arrangement for television. Still photographers and print reporters got to stay inside, where they literally stepped on each other while documenting Sid’s 12-minute treatment.

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Sid had little privacy. Immediately before the laser treatment, Dr. Scott Weldy, a veterinarian, held up the sleepy-looking boa. Weldy noted that Sid had been given a mild anesthetic: “He’s beginning to look a little stupid now.” Lights flashed and TV cameras whirred.

Then the specialists took Sid into the operating room and stretched him out on the table.

“Why aren’t we getting this?” yelled a TV reporter to a harried assistant. “I want this to go on the air.” The agitated reporter demanded that the patient-entry scene be repeated. The doctors good-naturedly complied. They removed Sid from the operating table, hauled him out, then made another entrance.

Sid, meanwhile, looked zonked out under the surgical lights. Then the lights were turned off, and the intense red laser was focused on Sid’s mouth.

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Sid began moving restlessly on the table. “I think the camera flashes are bothering his eyes,” Weldy said. He and assistants taped cotton over the snake’s eyes. Then the laser therapy continued.

In the hall, a television reporter said: “Oprah should think about getting this act on her show.”

Emmett Carlson, the Mission Viejo High biology teacher whose classroom is Sid’s home, said students “noticed something on Sid’s lip a few weeks ago, and we later found it was cancer. We hope the treatment is successful and Sid survives. He’s a great favorite of the students.”

Michael Berns, director of the Beckman Laser Institute, said, “This is the first time in the world that this type of operation on a snake is being done. We’re using a new drug that has potential for use with human cancer patients.”

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The new drug, chloro-aluminum sulfonated phthalocyanine, was injected into Sid and concentrated in his tumor. The laser reacted with the chemical, burning off the destructive cancer cells.

Human patients who are treated with other drugs and laser therapy report an itching sensation when the laser succeeds in burning cancer cells. Sid’s movements, Berns said, indicated that the treatment was working.

“It went very successfully,” Weldy said.

Afterward, Weldy, Berns and Carlson held a press conference at which even Sid Vicious was present. Weldy had placed the sleeping snake in a pillowcase.

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“He needs to get away from the cameras for a while,” Weldy explained. “He’s getting a little photosensitive.”


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