Third grade was a doozy. Katrina Simpkins, survivor of a half-dozen surgeries and body casts, had a stunted right thigh. Her right foot reached only to her left knee. She wore a prosthesis to school, and never found a way to fit in. There was this kid, this one little torturer, who kept at her all year.
For her hard slog through third grade, Katrina was allowed to pick the family's first vacation trip. Katrina's surgeries and expenses had made vacations an impossible luxury. But in June 2007, they hit the road for Florida. Katrina had chosen her personal Mecca, Cinderella Castle at Disney World. Her mom checked the route from their home in Columbia City, Ind., and found an aquarium not far from Disney. Might as well stop there, too.
At the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Katrina peeked into a dolphin tank.
"Did I just see a stub?"
The dolphin was "a little girl" like her, an aquarium worker told her. She had lost her tail and nearly died when she entangled herself in rope from a crab pot. This girl dolphin was named Winter. She had a prosthesis of her own, a plastic tail, that helped her swim.
Katrina crept to the tank's edge. Winter came to her. She stopped. She lifted her head. She made eye contact. She seemed to be speaking to Katrina:
We're the same.
• • •
For two years, it has been one child after another. They've showed up on prosthetic legs, or in wheelchairs, or sick from cancer, or hearing impaired, all hurting or struggling in some way.
Sophie, 3, from Texas.
Heath, 5, from Orlando.
Brandon, 11, from Hudson.
Aidan, 7, from St. Petersburg.
McKenna, 9, from Dallas.
Phoebe, 8, from Clearwater.
Bailee, 4, from Knoxville.
No one anticipated these kids when the aquarium launched a project to fit a baby dolphin with a prosthetic tail. But the list keeps growing.
• • •
Back in Indiana, all Katrina talked about was the dolphin with no tail. For two weeks, she cried and begged her mother to take her back to Clearwater.
Maria Simpkins called the aquarium's CEO, David Yates. He had introduced himself to Katrina on their visit. He told her to call him anytime. On the phone, Maria asked him to help her out. "Please tell Katrina that Winter is all right."
David assured Katrina that the aquarium and Winter would always welcome her back. The call began a phone and text-messaging relationship between the CEO and the child that continued for a year-and-a-half. She would watch him come and go on a Web camera set up over the dolphin tanks. On any given day, David had 10 text messages from Katrina on his Blackberry.
She returned to the aquarium five times. The aquarium paid for one trip. The staff treated her like one of their own. She roamed the building, helped with the shows, assumed the role of someone in charge. She sometimes called herself the CEO. David would find her seated behind his desk.
This is a child, David said, who didn't fit in anywhere else. Under the spell of Winter, she feels confident. She belongs.
• • •
Other children like Katrina talk about "feeling normal" around Winter.
Aidan Schmitz, a solemn 7-year-old from St. Petersburg, was born with only one bone in her left lower leg. Aidan saw Winter on the Today show, and visited her at the aquarium.
"Winter looked at me. I waved at her, and she raised her flipper."
Brandon Saunders, 11, from Hudson, lost his leg on Memorial Day 2006 to a boat propeller. Brandon was sitting in the back of his dad's boat, snuggled up in a towel when the boat hit a rock. Everyone fell out, even the dog. Brandon's towel caught on the propeller and pulled him into the blades.
David Yates heard about Brandon on the news and invited to the boy to meet the dolphin. They had both survived a tragedy at sea. They bore the scars of kindred spirits.
Winter let Brandon pet her.
• • •
Fourth grade has been another doozy for Katrina Simpkins, the little girl from Indiana.
She fell on the hardwood floor at home and broke her hip. While fixing her hip, doctors found a knee fracture. When those healed, she broke her shin. Katrina was in a wheelchair from April to August. She started fearing school again, didn't want the kids to see her that way.
David Yates, her telephone pal, flew to Chicago to be with her at Shriners Hospitals for Children. He got there before she did and surprised her in the parking lot.
He had brought good news. Since Winter was rescued, summer attendance at the aquarium had doubled. Soldiers hurt in Iraq had discovered Winter. Donations were way up. A $2-million renovation was almost completed. Winter was getting a new tank. A video documentary, Winter, The Dolphin that Could!, was coming out soon. A book was in the works.
David had brought a video camera, hoping to include Katrina in the documentary. He followed the girl into an examination room and sat beside her. A doctor came in to explain bad news. She would need more surgery on her hip. Not now, but in a couple of years. David watched Katrina react. She quietly asked questions.
David was awed by her composure. In that sterile examination room, the CEO, the talkative promoter, fumbled for words.
• • •
On a recent visit to the aquarium, Katrina ran into Dan Strzempka, the prosthetics designer who made Winter's tail. He and his boss, Kevin Carroll, were beside the dolphin tank, taking more measurements of Winter. Katrina saw Dan's prosthesis. Dan told her how he had lost his leg as a small boy.
Winter looked happy. She glided around the pool like a diva, flirting with her human admirers. But Dan was more concerned about how Katrina looked. He and Kevin didn't like the prosthesis she wore. The protective covering for her skin was missing. She had blisters. She complained it didn't fit right. Dan looked it over, frowning.
"How about I make a new one for you?"
In October, Katrina came to Dan's Sarasota lab for fittings. She stayed a week as he labored on a complicated design, intent on preventing those chronic fractures and blisters.
He worked on it all week. He secretly borrowed Katrina's favorite T-shirt from her mom. He sewed it over the top of her new prosthesis.
He unveiled it at the end of the week. It was pink and purple. The lettering was bordered by sea shells. It read:
John Barry can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2258.