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Students get lesson with a porpoise
Mount Vernon kindergartners learn from 'Dolphin Tale'
Mount Vernon Elementary kindergartner Gracie Grant gets the feel of the human version of WintersGel prosthetic lning during a presentation about the movie “Dolphin Tale” on Thursday. - photo by Tom Reed

Kindergartners at Mount Vernon Elementary School heard quite the tale Thursday morning - a tale of a tail, to be exact.

They heard the true story of Winter, the tail-less dolphin who inspired the 2011 Warner Brothers movie "Dolphin Tale," from a parent with first-hand experience.

Nancy Kaselak, Gainesville area practice manager for Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, is a colleague and friend of the two Hanger prosthetists who designed Winter's new tail.

"The world of prosthetics and orthotics is not very big. We all know each other, but I haven't actually met Winter," Kaselak said. "We're going the first week of April ... we're going to talk to her and feed her and read her a book. I've talked to a couple of people that have been down there and they said it was phenomenal."

Her two children, Maggie, 6, and Paul, 7, were in the room to hear their mom talk about the prosthetics and orthotics industry and how it relates to the movie.

"Our goal is to let children know that our field even existed," Kaselak said. "And if they have friends who have braces or prosthetics, to correlate that with Winter and the importance of why someone needs that to survive and how they can't really function without it. It's not something to be scared of."

Kaselak brought examples of adult and child leg braces and arm prosthetics to show students.

They also got to ask questions of Dan Strzempka, the certified prosthetist and Hanger area practice manager in Florida who helped designed Winter's tail prosthesis.

"We make the tail just like we make legs or braces for humans," Strzempka told students via conference call. "Most of it is plastic, a really flexible rubberized plastic. We have to make it so it'll float."

Strzempka, portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movie, and colleague Kevin Carroll have been working on Winter's tail for several years since the 3-month-old dolphin was found off the coast of Florida in 2005, Kaselak said. When a fisherman found her caught in a crab trap, she was brought to the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, where she was stabilized and later taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Kaselak explained to the students that Winter's injuries from the crab trap caused her to lose her tail. The tissue was dying from lack of blood flow.

After the tail was removed, they faced medical issues.

"She was swimming side to side and that made a lump on her back," one student said.

The "lump on her back" was Winter developing both scoliosis and kyphosis, which are curvatures of the spine in different directions, because she was swimming like a fish instead of a dolphin, Kaselak said.

That was when researchers decided she needed a new tail.

"It was incredibly challenging and it was something no one's ever done before," Strzempka said. "How are we going to put something on her skin and how are we going to keep it on?"

The tail functions similar to a prosthetic foot in humans, where if Winter pushes down on it, the tail will respond with an energy return.

"In the movie where you see her swinging the tail off and slapping it around, that never happened. She never rejected it.

She was the best patient they ever had," Kaselak said.

What was rejected, however, was the typical gel liner used in prosthetics.

The usual gel used in prosthetics was too slippery to stay on Winter in the water, and her skin was fragile from her injuries, so whatever was used had to accommodate that as well. The solution was WintersGel, a silicone gel liner used to secure Winter's tail into her prosthetic.

WintersGel is now part of certain human prosthetics as well. The gel liner can be used for people with delicate skin, skin grafts from burns or even allergies, Kaselak said.

The tail prosthetics have to be changed as Winter grows and according to season: in the summer she swells and in the cold she gets a little smaller.

She wears her tail two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, Kaselak said. Too much wear can actually cause Winter to overheat as dolphins release heat from their tails.

"I've talked to 50 or so schools over the country and this was kind of unique today where I just phoned in," Strzempka said. "Winter's story has inspired hundreds if not thousands of kids with disabilities."

But after the movie was released, she's inspired kids without disabilities to embrace those with differences.

Though talking with kindergartners was different than some other classes, Strzempka said he usually tries to tie in the math, art and physics required to design a prosthetic to correlate the curriculum with the profession.

Mount Vernon Elementary students wanted to know about Winter's diet. In the movie, they saw her eat out of a bottle, but now she eats restaurant-quality fish, Strzempka said.

Another big question was how Winter's tail goes on.

When they put the tail on, Winter is either in the water or on a platform next to the water.
"Every time I walk in and she sees the tail, Winter will swim right up to me," Strzempka said. "She's very excited to put it on."

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