Sunday, September 9, 2007

She's a fighter

She was brought to the hospital as a frail, dehydrated 3 month-old in December 2005 and she has been fighting ever since. A fisherman had found her tangled in the bouy line of a crab trap in the Indian River Lagoon near Cape Canaveral. While the team at the aquarium fought to save her life, they lost the battle to try to save her tail.

The blood supply had been cut off from the little dolphin's tail and it slowly fell off. Winter lost both her flukes and the wrist like joint called the peduncle, which would have allowed her to move her tail up and down. Winter though, has managed to learn to swim in her own style since then. She uses her flippers which are normally used to steering and braking, to get herself moving and then uses a unique combination of moves to actually swim.

Winter uses what is left of her tail to swim and moves much like an alligator by using it from side-to-side. Her handlers believe that this will cause her spinal problems in the future since she slready bends her spine unnaturally. She is a healthy 6 feet-long and 180 pounds and her trainers have her on a therapy program to keep the muscles she isn't using in her tail, limber.

"My heart went out to her, and I was thinking I could probably put a tail on her," stated Kevin Carrol, vice president of prosthetics at Hanger Orthopedic Group, Inc.

Carrol is a prosthetic specialist who travels the country tackling the toughest of human amputation cases. Winter proved to be tougher than they had first thought, it was no easy task to design a tail that would create as much force as was needed for her and not fall off. Carrol, an Orlando FL resident whose company is based in Bethesda Maryland, has stated that what he and his team learned from working with Winter in her home at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium FL will help both dolphins and humans.

"I thought I could go down there, cast her ( tail stump ) and put the tail on her," stated Carrol.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates stated that they had another group come to them first and they had told him that they couldn't figure out how to keep the tail attached to Winter. He added that Carrol had come to him and said that they had the technology and could do it. Carrol, like the other's on Winter's team, volunteered his time and resources and set to brainstorming elaborate vacuum attachments. In the end though, they settled on a simple silicone gel sleeve for her stump.

"A lot of dolphins might reject this up front. But every step of the way she has excelled in everything we have asked her to do," stated Yates.

It is a slow process of fitting the sleeves to Winter and teaching her to swim like a normal dolphin with the prosthesis on. Carrol likened it to working with a child, they are always on "her" time, not their timetable. He stated that he hadn't understood the training that needed to be done with her for each tail fitting. They intend to keep introducing Winter to new pieces and hopefully, attach the first artificial flukes for her.

The ultimate goal it to have Winter keeping up to the other two male dolphins at the aquarium. Carrol had found that what they are learning now with Winter, has him thinking of new materials to make human prosthetics tougher in saltwater and furthering their knowledge of back injuries to dolphins.

Probably the best developement to come from Carrol's team working with Winter is the use of similar technology on humans. The gel sleeve that was developed for Winter has already helped Air Force Senior Airman Brian Kolfage, who lost both legs and his right hand in a 2004 mortar attack in Iraq. The sleeve was developed to cling to Winter's tail without irrating her sensitive skin and a similar sleeve is now allowing Kolfage to walk with much less pain and irratation than before.

It would seem that Winter is a fighter and anything that can be developed to help her live as long and as normal a life should be sought.

Of note: Picture of Winter resting on her floating mat in the pool at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

1 comment:

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