When Dan Strzempka began developing a prosthetic tail, or fluke, for a dolphin named Winter, who had been injured in a crab trap, he never imagined the story would become a Hollywood movie starring Morgan Freeman.
“It’s really surreal,” he said. “I don’t exactly get recognized, because we look nothing alike, but (Sarasota-based Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics) gets a lot more recognition now.”
Strzempka will speak about his tail tale to students at The Out-of-Door Academy’s Siesta Key campus Friday, Jan. 20. Then, the school community will enjoy a screening of “Dolphin Tale” the following evening.
A Sarasota native, Strzempka is the practice manager for Hanger, which designs and fabricates braces and supports for amputees and other patients who may need them. When Hanger Vice President Kevin Carroll heard about Winter, his heart went out to her, and he enlisted Stzrempka’s help to fit her with the first prosthetic tail designed for a dolphin. After countless hours of work, the two developed a fluke that would withstand the unique obstacles presented by being attached to a marine animal submerged in saltwater.
To Strzempka, what’s more important than the story being adapted to film is the impact that Winter and her story have had on his patients. He remembers one girl who had a unique condition in which she was born without a femur, and she was reluctant to wear her prosthetic leg.
After she came to visit Winter, her outlook changed drastically.
“It was like a switch was flipped,” Strzempka said. “She immediately started talking about wanting to run and play sports. We just kept getting that kind of reaction from our patients. They really connect with Winter.”
As an amputee himself, Strzempka can relate to both Winter’s success and the needs of his patients. Strzempka lost his leg in a lawnmower accident when he was 4 years old and has worn a prosthetic ever since. He’s even benefited from the use of the prosthetic liner gel used to fit the fluke to the dolphin, now called WintersGel.
Strzempka continues to fabricate prosthetics for amputees, and he hopes to see the negative stereotypes associated with amputation continue to disappear. Even though one of his patients’ stories became an infamous tale of courage and inspiration, he considers each case his most important project, and loves making a difference in people’s lives.
“The best part of my job?” He answers without hesitation. “My patients come in here on wheels and walk out. It’s incredible.”