“Dolphin Tale” Is No Fish Story

Who doesn’t love dolphins?

Man has been fascinated with the aquatic creature as far back as the times of the Greeks, where they figured prominently in mythology. Reports of cooperative human-dolphin fishing date back to the ancient Roman author and natural philosopher Pliny the Elder.

But the newly released movie Dolphin Tale brings the connection between man and dolphin in a new direction.

Dolphin Tale is based on the true story of a dolphin named Winter who required an amputation of her tail after she was caught in crab trap in 2005.  As dolphins cannot swim (and therefore can’t survive) without a tail, caretakers at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida set to work to fashion a prosthetic tail for Winter.

Kevin Carroll and Dan Strzempka of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, Inc. heard about Winter’s plight and offered to help. Strzempka is an amputee himself, having lost a leg in a mower blade accident as a child.

One of the biggest difficulties the two encountered was finding a way to fit the prosthetic plastic tail on Winter without damaging the dolphin’s very sensitive skin.  After much trial and error, Strzempka eventually formulated a special silicone gel sleeve, which has now been named “Winter’s Gel.”

The sleeve, which is worn between the skin and the prosthetic, greatly reduces the chafing and pain associated with prostheses. And here’s where the story gets really good:

This technology is now being used for human amputees who need prosthetic limbs- including veterans,  athletes, and children. According to Kevin Carroll, Winter’s Gel:

is softer and less irritating than other liners. It’s especially helpful for keeping the prosthetics of amputee athletes in place when their skin becomes slick with sweat.

A Short Primer On Limb Prostheses

Source: Wikipedia

Most modern artificial limbs are attached to the stump of the amputee by belts and cuffs or by suction. The stump either directly fits into a socket on the prosthetic, or – more commonly today – a liner is used that then is fixed to the socket either by vacuum (suction sockets) or a pin lock. Liners are soft and by that, they can create a far better suction fit than hard sockets.The socket is custom made to fit the residual limb and to distribute the forces of the artificial limb across the area of the stump (rather than just one small spot), which helps reduce wear on the stump. The custom socket is created by taking a plaster cast of the stump or, more commonly today, of the liner worn over the stump, and then making a mold from the plaster cast. Newer methods include laser guided measuring which can be input directly to a computer allowing for a more sophisticated design.

One problems with the stump and socket attachment is that a bad fit will reduce the area of contact between the stump and socket or liner, and increase pockets between stump skin and socket or liner. Pressure then is higher, which can be painful. Air pockets can allow sweat to accumulate that can soften the skin. Ultimately, this is a frequent cause for itchy skin rashes. Further down the road, it can cause breakdown of the skin.

More than just a “Tale”

Winter’s story has become more than just the medical breakthroughs it has brought about. Winter has become a symbol of inspiration to many amputees.  According to Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO, David Yates:

What you see in the movie happens here every day of the week- the scene with the young girl with one leg, Kyle, the military guy…. Winter works with those kinds of people every day- military and young kids.

Have you seen Dolphin Tale? What did you take away from this movie?

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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