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Prosthetics in Humans and Animals: One Dolphin's Story

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BACKGROUND: Prosthetics, when used properly, can assist individuals who are missing arms or legs by allowing them to do many of the things they could do before their amputation. In a very unusual case, Winter, a dolphin, was fitted with a prosthetic tail to help her swim. Winter was rescued from a tangled crab trap in Cape Canaveral, Fla., when she was just two months old. She was brought to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, but was not expected to survive her injury. Blood supply had been cut off to her tail and it was so damaged, it literally fell off of her body and she was left with a stump. Dolphins normally move by propelling their tail up and down. Although Winter was able to swim by adopting a new swimming style -- a unique side-to-side maneuver -- doctors were concerned the motion would damage her spine. Hearing about her story, Kevin Carroll, an expert prosthetist and vice president of prosthetics at Hanger Orthopedic Group, Inc., offered to fit her with an artificial tail. "My heart went out to her, and I was thinking I could probably put a tail on her," Carroll was quoted as saying.

It took about a year and a half for Carroll to develop the new tail. It was a more difficult task than he anticipated. "With a person, when we fit a socket on them, we have one long, solid bone," he was quoted as saying. "We don't have to have the socket moving in every direction. With a dolphin, it needs to move along with her full spine." One of the biggest challenges they faced -- figuring out how to keep the tail from sliding off and how to propel a 400-pound dolphin 10 feet into the air.

The design of Winter's prosthetic may also help human amputees. Winter's new tail sticks to her body using suction, just like a surgical glove grips to a human hand. The gel sleeve Carroll created to help cling to Winter's tail without irritating her skin has also proven beneficial in human prosthetics. Brian Kolfage, Air Force Senior Airman, lost both his legs and right hand in 2004 in Iraq. His prosthesis was painful when he walked, but the new gel eased his discomfort. Carroll is currently researching for new materials that would hold up in saltwater.

Winter is now 6 feet long and weighs 180 pounds. She receives extensive physical therapy to help keep her muscles strong. Since being given her first prosthetic, Winter has been outfitted with more than a dozen, each one more technologically advanced. Winter also has a new children's book about her. Aptly called "Winter's Tail," the book will hit stores this fall 2009.

Dan Strzempka
Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics
(941) 377-5765

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