As a prosthetist, it might be considered unusual to spend a day of work visiting an aquarium to see a patient - then again, it is unusual to have a dolphin as a patient in the first place.
Kevin Carroll, an American Board-certified prosthetist, was driving in his car six years ago when he heard a story of a 3-month-old bottlenose dolphin near Cape Canaveral, Fla., who had been entangled in a crab trap and had lost blood supply to her tail. After hearing that the dolphin's tail had fallen off, Carroll decided to pick up the phone and call Florida Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which was holding the disabled dolphin, now dubbed Winter, and said, "You know, we put prosthetics on people, why not a tail on a dolphin?"
Carroll and Hanger's Sarasota, Fla., Practice Manager Dan Strzempka worked for 18 months designing a new tail that would allow Winter to swim comfortably again. The result was the creation of the the first full prosthetic tail for a dolphin. Carroll's work with Winter the dolphin later became the inspiration for the popular 2011 movie "Dolphin's Tale," starring Morgan Freeman.
Photo by Sarah Harmon
Vice President of Prosthetics for Hanger Orthopedic Group Dr. Kevin Carroll works on some prosthetics in the local Bethlehem clinic’s workshop during his visit Wednesday.
Carroll, who is vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Orthopedic Group, made a special visit Wednesday to the local clinic in Bethlehem to meet with patients to evaluate their prostheses and discuss new prosthetic technologies and designs.
"Every time I come to a new city, I bring my concept with me, but I learn a lot from local clinicians," said Carroll. "As a result we get to spread the wealth, spread the technologies, spread the understanding of clinical practices."
A dolphin and a person are biologically quite different, but the technology Carroll used on Winter can also be applied to people. The design of Winter's tail led to an interesting new material called WintersGel. They key to Winter's prosthetic was making a design that was comfortable for her skin. Carroll worked with a chemical engineer who works with gel materials and created a tacky gel that would both stick to Winter's body and absorb shock forces that go through the prosthetic. WintersGel, as it was called, used suction to grip to Winter's body much like a surgical glove sticks to a hand. The material was so successful, it began to be applied to human prosthetics.
"Because of that technology, there's people up walking today that probably would not be walking," said Carroll. "It's a fun material and a wonderful material to work with. It's something we've been pretty inspired by ourselves."
In addition to WintersGel, Carroll discussed further advances in prosthetic technologies during his visit. He outlined the development of computer-controlled knees that detect the dynamics of a person's gait. He explained that when a person starts to stumble, before they realize they are falling, the computer will instantly pick up on the change in the person's gait and will prepare the knee for the anticipated fall. The computerized knee is especially important for older adults who can't afford to fall.
Carroll also noted the advancement of prosthetics has largely been a result of the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq War, which have led to more than 1,000 people losing their limbs.
"Unfortunately war is war, but we do come up with new technologies because of war," Carroll said. "Because of this past war, we really advanced the state of the science when it comes to prosthetic technologies."
Carroll was born in Ireland and was taught by his mother, who cared for the sick and dying, to care for needy and physically challenged individuals. He was trained at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin and became a registered prosthetist in Ireland and then came to the United States to continue his career. Carroll travels across the United States and around the world teaching and developing prosthetics.