CLEARWATER — Meeting Winter the dolphin had been a dream of Irish twins Hassan and Hussein Benhaffaf ever since they watched the movie Dolphin Tale. The boys saw themselves as kindred spirits of Clearwater's famous dolphin with the prosthetic tail, for they, too, rely on prosthetic limbs.
Hassan and Hussein were born conjoined from the chest to the pelvis, sharing a liver, stomach and bladder. When they were 4 months old, surgeons separated the boys, leaving them with only one leg and one kidney each and parts of their pelvises missing.
The astronomically low odds of both boys' surviving birth and surgical separation have made them medical miracles. In Ireland, the twins, who are now 4 years old, are treated as celebrities, getting to meet Queen Elizabeth and other famous people such as Simon Cowell.
"The only big one they haven't met is Barack Obama," joked their father, Azzedine Benhaffaf.
On Wednesday, the boys' dream of meeting Winter came true. They got to pet, feed and play with her at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. They even got to touch the stump where the dolphin's tail used to be before she got tangled in a crab trap. When they finally waved goodbye, Winter waved back with her fin.
"When you tell them, 'You're going to meet (Winter),' they don't believe you," the boys' father said. "But when they got there, they were gobsmacked."
Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics at Hanger Clinic, which developed both Winter's and the twins' prosthetics, helped raise the money to bring the boys to the aquarium. Donors and charitable organizations such as Give Kids the World covered the costs for the whole Benhaffaf family to take a two-week vacation in Florida.
Carroll, who is from Ireland originally, had promised the trip to the boys about two years ago when he visited them at their home in Ireland to help them with their prosthetics. He showed them the movie Dolphin Tale and said that one day they could meet Winter.
The Benhaffaf family began the trip in Orlando, visiting Walt Disney World, Sea World and other kid-friendly sites. Next, the family went to a Hanger Clinic location in Sarasota to get adjustments and fittings for the boys' next prosthetic legs, which need to be replaced twice a year to keep up with their growth.
The trip ended in Clearwater with the much-anticipated meeting with Winter.
"Their dream came true today," said Angie Benhaffaf, the boys' mother. "It was very exciting, as a mom, to see that."
The boys' parents and the prosthetic specialists from Hanger Clinic are optimistic about improvements in the twins' mobility. Currently, the boys must use walkers to help them balance, but soon they should be able to walk on their own. And when the boys get older, they can be fitted with legs with microprocessors that provide mobility comparable to that of a normal leg.
"There has been a quantum leap in prosthetics in the last five years," Carroll said. "I am very excited about the future of rehabilitation."
The boys' trip also coincided with Winter's receiving a new prosthetic tail. Wear and tear on the old tail prompted the aquarium to request a new one from Hanger Clinic. Dan Strzempka, a Hanger Clinic prosthetic specialist in Sarasota, worked all night to finish the tail in time for the twins' visit Wednesday. Strzempka had to hand carve much of the tail using a copy of Winter's tail that he keeps in his office.
As the boys' dream vacation in Florida ends, their mother says her sons do not want to leave the Sunshine State.
"They just want to stay with Winter," she said.
Will Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.