Dolphin Tale movie brings global recognition to Manatee business

Hanger Prosthetics brings global recognition to area

jsalman@bradenton.comOctober 1, 2012 

MANATEE -- Dan Strzempka never dreamed he would one day be played by an Academy Award-winning actor on the silver screen.

But the global attention that has followed has left the Sarasota prosthetist even more dazzled.

From businessmen in London to a Formula 1 driver in Brazil and the victim of an alligator attack just east in Okeechobee, Strzempka fields calls daily from patients with complex cases hoping he can work the same magic on them that made Winter the dolphin a Hollywood star.

The answer is usually yes.

Strzempka has seen business skyrocket at Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics in Sarasota and in Bradenton at 2717 Manatee Ave. W. since the area manager was made famous when Warner Bros. released "Dolphin Tale" almost exactly one year ago.

Played by Morgan Freeman in the movie, Strzempka is the man who worked with Winter almost daily to develop the first ever prosthetic dolphin tail that ultimately saved Winter's life.

"When (my colleague) first called about the dolphin, I thought he was drunk," Strzempka said. "It was supposed to be a little three-month project. Here we are seven years later."

As the movie depicts, Winter was found injured along a Tampa area beach after a dangerous run-in with crab traps.

She was taken to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where her tail had to be amputated -- a move that would have left the young bottlenose dead within a few years from subsequent spinal cord damage.

Strzempka, already known for his work with high-tech prosthetics, was brought in to help.

But unlike the Hollywood dramatization, Winter took to her new one-of-a-kind tail almost immediately. The special silicone gel sleeve is now being used to increase comfort in prosthetic limbs for humans.

Strzempka still goes back regularly to check on his favorite patient, and to fit her for a new tail, which has to be adjusted to keep up with the dolphin as she grows and strengthens.

Now at a little more than 7 years old, Winter will need a new tail every six months until she reaches full growth at the age of 10. A bottlenose dolphin has a life expectancy of about 40 to 45 years in captivity.

"When they found her, she was not in good shape at all," Strzempka said. "But Winter has been one of the best patients of my life. She doesn't fight. She doesn't talk back."

Like Winter, Strzempka was injured when he was just a young boy.

The Sarasota native lost one of his legs at the age of 4 when it became caught

under a tractor trailer. He now uses a prosthetic brace.

That experience inspired Strzempka to help others, starting off at a local prosthetics office when he was 14 -- sweeping floors, taking out the trash, and learning the tricks of molding an artificial knee.

Now he's considered one of the best in the business.

Patients travel from around the world to consult with Strzempka, most of whom heard of him through the movie. He's on national TV talking about his experiences, cases and patients a dozen times a year.

He even worked with Oscar Pistorius, the 2012 Olympic sprinter who gained the nickname "Blade Runner" for his two carbon-fiber prosthetic legs.

Strzempka gets hundreds of fan letters a year from amputees around the world touched by his story, and of course, Winter's.

"I love my job," Strzempka said. "It's something different every day. When you can give someone who's been waiting six months a new leg, it's a life changer."

Hanger, publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is one of the world's largest providers or orthotic and prosthetic services, with more than 700 clinics in the United States.

Headquartered in Austin, Tex., the company was named after the first amputee of the Civil War. Hanger reported $251.8 million in net sales for the quarter that ended June 30, earning $17.4 million in net income during that time.

The company acquired Strzempka's Manasota Prosthetics more than a decade ago, giving Strzempka access to resources and technology he couldn't afford as an independent operator.

He pointed to the example of a computerized prosthetic leg that processes 50,000 thoughts a second and costs upwards of $80,000.

And although Strzempka has gained global recognition for the extreme cases, about 90 percent of the 6,000 patients who walk through the doors of the Bradenton and Sarasota offices each year are treated for diabetes.

Sarasota resident Peter Goldblatt, who has been visiting the clinic for the past year, become one of four in the U.S. to test an experimental brace from his thigh to his shoe.

When the trial ended in March, Hanger gave him a similar prosthetic that doesn't lock up when he walks, unlike most models on the market.

"I never fall with it," said Goldblatt, who suffers from polio. "For me, it's been fantastic. I'm doing pretty good."

Similar to its impact on Strzempka's business, "Dolphin Tale" has brought a steep uptick in visitation to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter still makes her home.

The movie is the driver of more than 70 percent of all visitors to the nonprofit aquarium, providing a total estimated impact to the bay area economy of $580 million in 2013, according to a recent study by the University of South Florida.

"The general momentum of our brand is enormous at this point," said Krista Rosado, director of marketing and advertising for the aquarium. "A good portion of our visitors are from out of state, and they're here primarily because they're inspired by Winter."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.

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