Sarasota prosthetist helped to give dolphin a new tail

Herald Health CorrespondentSeptember 13, 2011 

Winter the dolphin, and soon-to-be movie star, lives at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Her unique story of survival inspired the movie “Dolphin Tale,” which opens nationwide Sept. 23.

The movie stars Morgan Freeman as the “brilliant prosthetist” who made a new tail for a wounded baby dolphin.

The baby dolphin would be Winter, who plays herself in the movie. Freeman’s character is based on two real-life prosthetists, Dan Strzempka of Sarasota and Kevin Carroll of Orlando, who had an ambitious idea back in 2006.

The two work for Hanger Prosthetics and Orthopedics, which has 54 locations including offices in Bradenton and Sarasota. Carroll first heard about Winter on the radio. The young dolphin was badly entangled in crab trap line when discovered by a fisherman. She was rescued and taken to the Clearwater aquarium. Her life was saved, but not her tail.

New discovery

A tailless dolphin is similar to a person without legs. Neither can move like they did before, although humans can be fitted with prosthetic legs.

Dolphins rely on their tails to propel through water and do acrobatic leaps. Winter was compensating for the loss, but putting herself at risk for more injuries.

Prosthetic legs have become so sophisticated that the high-tech versions have computer chips. A dolphin with an amputated tail is just out of luck.

After hearing the radio story, Carroll called Strzempka. Winter needed a tail; they should make her one, he said.

Winter’s story has been told everywhere from the “Today Show” to the BBC. But if you haven’t heard it, there’s a great ending -- Strzempka and Carroll achieved their mission.

What’s more, they created a new product named WintersGel. Despite the name, this isn’t a gooey gel that is slathered on skin. Shaped like a sleeve, WintersGel is a soft form-fitting gel liner that slips between Winter’s delicate skin and her artificial tail. Cushiony, rubbery and sticky, it feels like marshmallow.

WintersGel is now being manufactured for people. Amputees across the country now use it, according to Hanger Prosthetics.

Sticky sleeve liners for amputees aren’t new. They keep the prosthesis in place, as well as make it easier to wear. But they don’t always offer daylong resistance from the pressure and friction of the prosthesis rubbing against skin, said Strzempka.

Like Winter, he is an amputee. He lost his leg at age 4 from a lawnmower accident.

Strzempka wore sleeve liners before helping to create WintersGel. He loves golf and plays 18 holes. He can walk for hours at a theme park.

“But at the end of the day, you pay for it,” he said.

He wanted to test WintersGel before putting it on Winter. Strzempka wore it to play 18 holes of golf. By day’s end, he was still comfortable. Also, the material didn’t make him hot, another plus in Florida.

Dana Pounds, a marine biologist, is one of Strzempka’s patients who wear WintersGel. She lost her leg to cancer in 2008.

Because WintersGel is resistant to salt water, Pounds can wear it in the ocean. She is the director of Nature’s Academy, an environmental education program for kids at Coquina Beach and Fort DeSoto.

“I’m getting back into running and I play golf. I used to get a lot of skin irritation but this sleeve is wonderful,” said Pounds.

National attention

Winter’s tail has attracted attention from everywhere. Strzempka helped make a webinar about Winter’s story for Scholastic magazine, which resulted more than 200,000 emails.

Teachers have sent albums with letters written in the scrawl of young children to Winter and Hanger Orthopedics

“You made Winter proud and happy,” wrote a first-grader from Maryland.

“I can’t imagine what it will be like after the movie,” said Strzempka about the probability of an email rush.

Strzempka has taken his pediatric patients to visit Winter.

One boy didn’t want to wear his prosthetic leg. The dolphin with the prosthetic tail melted his resistance.

So far, the Strzempka-and-Carroll team has created designs for 15 artificial tails for Winter, tweaking them as she becomes larger and expands her capabilities.

They added a hinge to make the tail more flexible. The hinge is similar in concept to how a hinge in a prosthetic foot allows a natural gait.

“It’s just like we do with kids. All of the sudden, they want to run. Then they want to jump. Then they want to snow ski,” said Strzempka.

“Winter is really a kid … except she can’t talk.”

“Dolphin Tale” was filmed on location in Clearwater and in addition to Morgan Freeman, stars Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Kris Kristofferson.

Freeman spent time at Hanger Prosthetic’s Bee Ridge Road office to observe how Strzempka works.

Meanwhile, the movie is a dramatization with its own story line, focusing on a fictional boy who loves Winter.

Moviegoers should expect to see a “decorated” version of the prosthetic tail, too. Strzempka added more metal, at the filmmakers’ request.

“In their words, they wanted me ‘to add a little bling to it,’ ” he said.

Curious? You can view Winter swimming in her pool via a live webcam at www.seewinter.com.

Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at shemmingway@hotmail.com.

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