“They just thought I was some smart [aleck],” recalls Carroll.
But Carroll, a native of Ireland who is one of the world’s leading prosthetists, convinced the dolphin’s caretakers of his credentials and drove from Orlando to meet with them that day.
The 3-month old dolphin, named Winter because she was found on a particularly cold December day in 2005, immediately stole Carroll’s heart. In time she would steal hearts around the world and inspire the new movie “Dolphin Tale,” in which she plays herself alongside co-stars Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd.
“She reminded me of the children I see who are just after having an amputation,” recalls Carroll of his first meeting with the bottlenose dolphin. “Obviously Winter was very sick, badly injured. And the people at the aquarium, their hearts were broken. . . . They were just incredible with her, working 24/7. There was never a moment that Winter was without human contact. They were now her adopted family.”
Carroll and a colleague, Dan Strzempka, both prosthetists with Hanger Orthopedic Group who happened to live in Florida, quickly committed themselves to the project. They had built prosthetics for birds, horses and dogs before, but never a dolphin.
Carroll and Strzempka, working pro bono, first had to figure out whether a fake tail would even help Winter. The dolphin could still swim on her own, despite losing her entire tail and two vertebrae. She had adapted, learning to swim side to side, the way a fish or shark would, rather than with the up-and-down motion natural to dolphins.
She couldn’t swim as fast or jump as high as most dolphins, but the real problem was that she was slowly damaging her spine. “She started to develop scoliosis,” says Carroll. “So we felt that by fitting her with a prosthetic device, we could get her swimming in an anatomically correct manner again.”
The challenges in creating such a device were manifold. The sockets of most prosthetics fit over arm or leg bones, and need not be flexible. This one would attach to the end of Winter’s body, and had to move side to side, up and down and gently twist as she swam.
It also needed to attach securely to her stump. This was particularly difficult, Carroll explains, because Dolphins have hypersensitive skin. “Human skin is fragile, but I can scratch my nail across my skin and in a couple of minutes that mark is gone,” he says. “But if I put that same mark on the dolphin’s skin, six weeks later I’d come back and that mark would still be there.”
They initially tried a silicone-based material as the adhesive lining for the prosthetic. Because Winter didn’t have the ability to articulate what was painful or irritating for her, they used heat-detecting cameras to pinpoint areas of sensitivity and found that with the silicone, she was developing hot spots of discomfort.