Winter’s tail became entangled in a crab trap off the Florida coast in 2005 when she was three months old. She managed to free herself and had the strength to swim to shore, where a fisherman spotted her and called for help.
When Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger, heard the news of Winter’s injuries on the radio, his first thought was, “We put arms and legs on people, why not put a tail on a dolphin?”
He reached out to Dan Strzempka, CPO, a colleague he has worked with for more than 25 years about a “new project.”
“At first Dan thought, nothing new, just another human patient,” Carroll remembers. When Carroll told Strzempka what he was proposing, “He thought I was kidding,” Carroll said. “But Dan’s an open-minded creative person and I knew he’d be open to trying.”
Strzempka, area clinic manager for Hanger in Sarasota, agreed. “After the initial shock, I was on board,” he said.
The men co-invented Winter’s tail and the prosthetic liner, WintersGel, that allowed Winter to use her prosthetic tail with comfort.
“Our hearts are broken to learn of the passing of our beloved Winter the dolphin. It has been our absolute honor working with Winter and her [trainers] at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium since her rescue. Working with Winter forced us to think outside the box and come up with new approaches to how we think about prosthetic devices,” said Carroll and Strzempka.
In the beginning, Carroll and Strzempka spent many nights and weekends doing research and trying different procedures with Winter’s trainers at the aquarium that might work for her. It was gradual, desensitizing process introducing Winter to her prosthesis so she wouldn’t reject it (as she did in the movie Dolphin Tale in 2010), Carroll said.
Strzempka said Winter, who was given her name because she was found in December, was a big help for his patients and brought hope to many. “One to two times every month I have taken patients who were struggling with their own issues to see Winter,” he said. “It made a big difference in their lives.”
Winter died of a gastrointestinal abnormality, according to the aquarium. A Celebration of Life for Winter has been planned for Saturday, November 20, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
“Thanks to Winter, our amputee population now benefits from this innovative technology with thousands of people using it around the world,” Carroll and Strzempka said. “Winter has given back so much to us, especially when it comes to inspiring people of all ages with life-threatening illnesses, those who have experienced traumatic injuries, and even soldiers returning from war. Winter’s impact is significant and long-lasting, and she will always hold a special place in our hearts.”