• 'Dolphin Tale' epilogue: Researcher who inspired book, movie reunites with little fan

  • It wasn’t your ordinary book signing.

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  • It wasn’t your ordinary book signing.
    Ashlyn Fowler requested that prosthetist Kevin Carroll autograph her copy of “Dolphin Tale” Wednesday at Hanger Clinic in Independence. The work of Carroll and his Hanger Clinic colleague Dan Strzempka inspired the children’s book and the 2011 movie.
    “To Ashlyn,” Carroll wrote to the 5-year-old girl from Lee’s Summit. “You are the best. Never say never.”
    He drew an Irish shamrock, “for good luck,” he said. Then, Carroll had Ashlyn lean in closer as he drew the special tail fluke on the drawing of Winter the dolphin.
    When he was finished, Carroll and Ashlyn exchanged thumbs-up signs and then they bumped elbows.
    That’s because Ashlyn’s left arm ends just below the elbow because it didn’t develop fully in utero.
    Carroll, the vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Clinic, isoriginally from Ireland and now calls Orlando, Fla., home. He visited the Independence site to visit with patients and catch with Ashlyn and her mother, Trish Whitehead. They first met last year at the Amputee Coalition’s national conference in Kansas City.
    “I get some great opportunities to visit with some great people,” said Carroll, adding that his work takes him across the world. “I’m very blessed to get to do that every day. When you enjoy what you do, you never have to work a day in your life.”
    As a board certified prosthetist with more than 30 years experience as a clinician, researcher and educator, Carroll created the first prosthetic tail fluke for Winter, who is now almost 7 years old. The young Atlantic bottlenose dolphin got caught in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral at 3 months old. Her tail fluke came off, and she received lifesaving medical attention at the Clearwater (Fla.) Marine Aquarium.
    Because of Carroll’s and Strzempka’s work, Winter became the first dolphin to have her entire tail fluke replaced with a prosthetic device. In last year’s Hollywood movie, the men were portrayed in a role played by Morgan Freeman.
    “He’s played people all the way up to God, so we were very inspired by him,” Carroll said of Freeman and getting to meet and collaborate with him for the movie. “To get to work with him, he’s just so down-to-earth, and he’s a great person to be around. The movie has taken the world by storm. Everywhere I go, people know about the movie.”
    That includes Ashlyn Fowler, who saw the movie in theaters, twice, and once in 3-D. Her favorite toy is a stuffed Winter that doesn’t have a tail fluke. On Wednesday, Ashlyn got to see one of Winter’s actual prosthetics, but she also saw Winter in person last year during a trip to Florida – the two even got to exchange kisses.
    Page 2 of 2 - Keith Andrews, a certified prosthetist at Independence’s Hanger Clinic, has completed several prosthetic arms for Ashlyn, including her special arm that she uses while swimming.
    “She’s already swimming like a fish,” Trisha Whitehead said of her daughter, who starts kindergarten next fall. “Not many 5-year-olds can say ‘prosthetic’ correctly.”
    Ashlyn isn’t the least bit ashamed of her condition, proud to show the sticker tattoos she’s placed on her prosthetic arm. But her mother admits that when Ashlyn was first born, she experienced a mourning process because her daughter wasn’t born “the perfect child.”
    “As she’s grown, she’s just been fantastic. Everything about her is absolutely perfect,” Trisha Whitehead said. “Because of her, I’ve gotten to meet some incredible people.”
    Ashlyn and Winter remain in close contact, even if they don’t see one another face to face. The little girl watches the dolphin online at www.seewinter.com, and there’s talk of another trip to Florida to see her soon.
    “Ashlyn, do you have anything that you would like for me to tell Winter when I see her next?” Carroll asked Ashlyn.
    The little girl’s message to her best friend who just happens to live on the other side of the country was simple.
    “Thank you.”

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