July 18, 2007 — -- When an animal is hurt in the wild, humans will come to its rescue if possible. With TLC, the animal is able to return to the wild, its lasting effect on humans limited to some warm memories.
The case of Winter, the bottlenose dolphin, is decidedly different. Winter lost her tail after being caught in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral in 2005. She was just 3 months old and 75 pounds, a rope was tied around her mouth, and she was losing circulation to her tail when a fisherman found her and called Florida's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.
Now, Winter is getting an artificial tail that will let her swim much like she used to. The high-tech work also has made life better for an Iraq war veteran who lost his legs to an explosion.
The link between dolphin and war veteran is Kevin Carroll, vice president of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Bethesda, Md., a dolphin lover who first heard about Winter's desperate situation on the radio. Winter had stunned her handlers when she used her flippers, typically reserved for navigation, to swim. Carroll knew that if the dolphin continued to swim in this unnatural way without her tail, she probably would develop further problems in her spinal cord.
Carroll, who usually works with human patients, offered his services to Florida's Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter has been receiving treatment.
Carroll's company began creating a flexible, silicon-based prosthetic tail. He planned to place the tail over a gel-like substance to hold it in place while protecting the dolphin's sensitive skin. Carroll says he tried several substances until he found a commercially available one that suited Winter.
About a year later, he again experimented, this time on a human.
Brian Kolfage lost both legs and his right hand in a mortar attack Sept. 11, 2004, while serving with the Air Force in Balad, Iraq.
Kolfage, 22 at the time, received two leg prosthetics but continued to have a severe skin reaction. Carroll decided to experiment with the gel-like substance he had developed for Winter, using it to pad the irritated area between Kolfage's new left leg and pelvic area.
In what Carroll calls a "big breakthrough," the substance relieved Kolfage's discomfort.
Kolfage, now 25 and working a desk job for Air Force security in Tucson, began walking again. "I really didn't think it would work … but it was like the difference between night and day," Kolfage says. "It was perfect."