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Folks who have met Winter

Levi LaRochelle

Eleven-year-old Levi LaRochelle was first diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome when he was eight. Asperger's Syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development.

Levi has received hemispheric integration therapy from Dr. Nelson Mañé at the Mañé Center in Tampa Florida for 2 years. Dr. Nelson Mañé is board certified in chiropractic orthopedics and neurology. He has subspecialty training in childhood neurobehavioral disorders, electro diagnostics, vestibular disorders (balance problems) as well as training in functional medicine. He is one of the most experienced doctors using high power laser therapy. He is also a DAN! Doctor (Defeat Autism Now!).

Levi's therapy had proven successful, however Dr. Mañé approached Clearwater Marine Aquarium to include Winter the Dolphin into his therapeutic regimen with the hope that his experience with her would allow for increased results in his therapy.

On June 26th, 2010, Levi participated in his first of several therapeutic sessions in the water with Winter. As Kimberly LaRochelle, Levi's mother, describes the experience, "I was dreading the encounter and could not sleep the night before as I knew my son Levi did not appreciate anything new, whether it is good or bad. So, there we were, about ready to get in the water with Winter for the very first time. This was "Winter", a sweet little dolphin with a disability of her own. Levi's face lit up as he saw Winter for the very first time, and his eyes danced with delight as he looked straight at her. Most amazing was the smile that spread across his face as if he had just seen his best friend.

"For a typical child, this would be a most typical response, yet with Levi, because of Asperger's, smiling, looking at someone in the face, and the showing of emotion were all things that were extremely rare and not something I was used to seeing. It was magical and I could hardly believe what was happening. Levi's doctor was equally amazed at his little patient's emotional expression in response to this encounter with Winter.

"Levi's eyes, usually void and blank of any emotion and expression, literally lit up and sparkled with happiness, and his smile sent me soaring! There was an emotional connection with Winter and Levi that no one could explain and yet it was!"

Amazed at these results, Dr. Mañé started incorporating visits with Winter as a complement to Levi's already established therapy, in treatment of his Asperger's. There continues to be many small and yet enormous strides in Levi's emotional development. Many more smiles and many more hugs and kisses, and outward gestures of emotion have emerged since that day.

This is nothing less than a miracle; to see my son emerge and thrive in his emotional intelligence overwhelms my heart.


Maja Kazazic

When Maja Kazazic was 16 years old and living in Bosnia during the war, she was severely injured from a motor shell rocket grenade. The six friends she was with were all killed from the grenade. After Maja had a leg removed, and was on the verge of dying from her injuries and infection, the U.S. government arranged for Maja to be removed secretly out of the country. She left her family and came to the United States for treatment, not knowing if she would ever see her mother, father and brother again. Undergoing rehabilitation at a hospital in Maryland, it was months before she found out her family survived the war. Maja was eventually able to move them all to the United States. She learned English, graduated from high school and college and is now a successful business owner.

After moving to Clearwater, Maja began coming to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and started following the story of Winter, the dolphin without a tail. She kept visiting and following Winter's progress. She began to feel that Winter was the animal version of herself. The two had both been through traumatic injuries, lost part of themselves and had prosthetics. Beyond that, from the time Maja was five years old in Bosnia, she had dreamed of seeing a dolphin in person.

Maja decided she wanted the same doctor that Winter had and went to Hanger Prosthetics and had them make her a prosthetic leg. In another ironic twist, she uses the same type of gel in her prosthetic sleeve that was originally created for Winter. Maja now volunteers at the Aquarium once a week and truly has an amazing and inspirational story to share of how a dolphin has helped her make it through her own struggles.

She has been approached by several people about writing a book and wants to eventually see her story on the big screen. The whole time she shared this story (which is much longer than I can type in one e-mail), she had a smile on her face. She said she always smiles because she's thankful every day to be alive. Her website is located at http://www.majakazazic.com. She also taught herself how to build websites and is now running a successful website business.


Cody McCasland

Cody was born prematurely and the doctors immediately knew something was not quite right. After a series of hospitalizations and surgeries, at age two Cody was again hospitalized and an MRI was performed. This MRI showed that Cody was missing his tibia and knee on both the left and right side. The family was left with few choices and a bi-lateral amputation was scheduled for January 2003. Cody never lets anything bring him down. Two months after Cody had his surgery he was fitted with his first prosthetics and walking with assistance! Besides all of the above surgeries, Cody has also needed "regular kid" procedures such as tubes in his ears and gall bladder removal. Through all of this, Cody has had the opportunity to participate in horseback riding, gymnastics, t-ball, soccer, swimming, running, golf, flying a plane, and many other adventures.

Cody and Winter share the same limitless attitude and Cody believes that this attitude will get them both far in life and help them help others reach their goals. Cody is the official spokesperson for Winter's Family Beach Fest, a weekend of inspiring family-friendly events and world class road races hosted by Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Challenged Athletes Foundation of Florida. Learn Cody's entire story here. Cody is shown in the closing credits of Dolphin Tale.


Andrew Hall

Twenty-year-old Andrew Hall was critically injured in May 2009after a drunk driver struck him while he was standing on a sidewalk. Andrew struggled to survive and lost his left leg as a result of the accident. Andrew and Montel Williams came to CMA to meet Winter for a story that was featured on "The Doctors," a nationally syndicated television talk show.

He also suffers from Cerebral Palsy and spent several years learning how to walk. Doctors at Hanger Prosthetics &Orthotics, who also make Winter the Dolphin's prosthetic tails, donated a prosthetic leg for Andrew.

Meeting a dolphin was one of the items on a list Andrew made of things he wants to do before he dies. Thanks to CMA and "The Doctors" TV show, that dream came true and Andrew was able to get in the water with Winter and learn more about her story of survival. Andrew and Winter have a lot in common and Andrew visits CMA as often as he can. Read more of Andrew's incredible story here. Andrew is shown in the closing credits of Dolphin Tale.

Click here to read article about Andrew.


Megan McKeon

11-year-old Megan McKeon was born in Latvia, and now lives with her adoptive parents in California. At just 5 months old, Megan's birth mother dropped a cigarette in her crib, badly burning the infant. Megan lost one leg to the burns and the other leg was severely injured. The hospital in Latvia took over her care and began to perform experimental surgeries and procedures on her. Megan endured 23 amputations to her leg. An intern at the hospital saw what was occurring, told a friend who was a journalist, and that journalist wrote an article about the need for Megan to find an adoptive home outside Latvia where she could get better medical care. Megan's adoptive parents, Mark and Susan McKeon, were working in Latvia at the time and saw the article (Susan was a nurse at the U.S. Embassy and Mark was working as an attorney). They adopted Megan right away.

Until Megan read the story of Winter, she was not wearing her prosthetic leg regularly. She was so inspired by Winter's story that she started wearing her leg several hours each day. Her practitioner fit her with the ‘Winter gel' to help increase her comfort level since Megan has sensitive scar tissue, just like Winter does. Megan is an extremely active little girl. She's a gymnast, water and snow skis, surfs, and is a motivational speaker. Megan is shown in the closing credits of Dolphin Tale.


Folks who have not met Winter but would like to

Jasmine Montes

In April 2010, 8-year-old Jasmine Montes came home from a day of swimming at her grandmother's pool and told her mom that her feet were cold. It seemed like a normal side effect after a day in the pool. Jasmine went to bed seemingly healthy but awoke in the middle of the night in pain. Rushed to the hospital, she and her parents would soon learn that Jasmine had a cancerous tumor the size of a football in her chest cavity that was pressing against her aorta and cutting off the blood flow to her legs.

The lack of blood flow necessitated the amputation of both legs through the knees. An intensive chemo regimen was started and Jasmine was hospitalized for nearly five months. Her medical team speculates that Jasmine may have had the tumor at birth and it just grew with her as she aged and developed. The chemo shrunk the tumor just enough for a critical surgical removal last year.

Now, more than a year later, Jasmine is currently cancer-free, her hair is starting to grow back, and she is walking on her first set of preliminary prostheses! She participated in a cancer beauty pageant in March. When presented with the possibility of the trip of a lifetime to Disney World, Jasmine kindly declined and said she would rather meet Winter the Dolphin! She was introduced to Winter's story in January at a prosthetic fitting appointment and hasn't stopped dreaming about a trip to meet the inspirational dolphin. When asked what she loves about Winter, Jasmine said, "She went through the same thing as me." Here are 10 photos of Jasmine:

Click here to read article about Jasmine.


Tyler Manning

When he was just 9 years old, on January 2, 2009, Tyler Manning from Sebastian, Florida, was diagnosed with Synovial Sarcoma, a rare form of soft tissue cancer that invades the tendons, joints, and muscles in between the bones. After enduring extensive chemotherapy treatments, the cancer still managed to make its way to Tyler's bone marrow, and in order to save his life, doctors were forced to amputate his right leg below the knee on April 1, 2009. Tyler is now cancer-free and doing fantastic.

Thanks to a wish granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and a donated swimming prosthesis from Hanger, Tyler was recently able to swim with dolphins on a cruise to the Western Caribbean and fulfill a dream of his. Tyler also recently learned of Winter and would love to meet her.

Tyler, who has just begun 7th grade, also has an "everyday" prosthesis he uses to play outside with his friends, and even learned how to ride a bike with his prosthesis.

Here are links to a few of the news clips resulting from a recent media day:


Melody Bach

7-year-old Melody Bach was born without both legs above her knees due to a rare disease called PFFD. She is a very happy, outgoing little girl who would love to meet Winter the Dolphin. As a very active young girl, she has multiple sets of legs, including a set of high activity running legs. Melody is from Long Beach, California.

Click on the following links to view photos:
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Melody loves the story of Winter. Kevin Carroll from Hanger Prosthetics, the creator of Winter's tail, introduced her to the story while developing Melody's legs.


Robert Ram

Robert Ram from Laguna Hills, California, was 13 years old when he had his left leg amputated above the knee due to Ewing Sarcoma (cancer). Now Robert is 16 years old and is a terrific teen who is outgoing, fun, and very active. He is also an avid surfer. Robert would love the opportunity to meet Winter the Dolphin, as he has drawn inspiration from her story.

You can see his photo and brief story here:



Military Related Stories

Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun: Iraq War veteran

Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun earned respect for the U.S. military at a young age. His father served in Vietnam and his grandfather in World War II. In 1999, Heath decided to carry on their dedication to the military and service to the country by enlisting in the U.S. Army. He completed his Airborne Ranger and infantry training in Fort Benning, Georgia, and was deployed to Iraq where he was assigned as a Squad Leader for the famed 101st Airborne Division.

It was there, in 2003, that his convoy was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. "I was at the rear corner of the Humvee when the grenade hit the tail light right beside my right leg," he said. "I was lying on my side. I could see my legs were really messed up." Heath yelled to the driver of the vehicle to call the incident in to headquarters. "I laid my head back down and that's all I remember."

The injuries he sustained ultimately resulted in the loss of both legs above the knees. Another soldier was killed in the attack. Heath wears a bracelet etched with the soldier's name and date of the attack on his right wrist in honor of his service.

Heath has met Winter and even had the opportunity to be in the pool with her. He was also featured on NBC Nightly News with Winter. Click Here


Major Ed Pulido

In a matter of seconds, under a broiling Iraqi noon sun on Aug. 17, 2004, Major Ed Pulido of Edmond, Oklahoma saw his life take a 180-degree turn. He was thrust into first battling for his own survival and then dealing with how to rebuild himself.

Having completed three separate tours of duty in Iraq, Pulido was serving a one-year stint with the U.S. Army Reserve's 75th Division to train new members of the Iraqi army. As he was driving an SUV through what is known as "IED Alley," traveling at 50-60 miles per hour, the SUV hit an IED (improvised explosive device), that exploded under him.

What magnified the horror for Pulido was that he was conscious throughout his ordeal, and could see the damage, as if it were in slow motion. The blast blew the hand guards off Pulido's M-16 rifle, shattered all the windows, leaving fragments of the windshield in his face. He remembers that when he looked at his leg, he knew it was destroyed. He estimates that 47 minutes passed before the men could hear a helicopter approaching. "God's coming to get me," Pulido said to himself, and then, he relates, "As I lay on the battlefield, all I could think of was what will be done to help my family?"

Pulido suffered a broken leg, arm, knee, and pelvis; he had pieces of shrapnel lodged in his abdomen and arm and still carries at least one piece that surgeons could not remove. That remaining piece of metal led to the infection that necessitated the removal of his left leg. He would undergo 17 hours of surgery and six blood transfusions. He would spend 60 days in the hospital before seeing sunlight, and his weight would plummet from 195 to 118 pounds.

During his recovery, Pulido was visited by Gen. David Petraeus, the Commanding General of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, who awarded Pulido the Purple Heart. In a more formal ceremony later at Brooke Army Medical Center, Pulido was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal and the Joint Service Achievement Medal by Gen. Richard Cody, Vice Chief of Staff Army.

Nearly three years later, Pulido is well into Phase 3, as he works to effect change as a staunch advocate for individuals with disabilities. He counsels other soldiers in Oklahoma who have had life-changing injuries through a program he helped develop, Heroes Helping Heroes or Heroes Support Network. Major Pulido isn't bashful to lift his left pant leg to show off a $52,000 titanium leg, which allows him to water ski, snow ski and run 100 meters in 20 seconds.

Pulido is a native of Aibonito, Puerto Rico, where legend says the town was named when an explorer awakened to the scenery and cried, "Oh, so beautiful!" For Pulido, beauty out of the darkness was seeing the sunlight outside his hospital room. "The greatest thing was that the day after the amputation was a sunny fall day after weeks of fog and rain," he said.


Karl Chapin: Vietnam War veteran

In 1967 the war in Vietnam was raging and Karl enlisted in the army, earned his "Jump Wings" and became a paratrooper. He soon ended up in combat in the dense jungles of Southeast Asia. One of the most intense regions of fighting was the A Shau Valley, and it was here that his unit was involved in an operation known as Burchase Gardens.

"We had three fire bases in the valley and the North Vietnamese hit them all simultaneously," said Karl. "I was looking downhill and I saw a bunker get hit. Then I heard someone yell for a medic, but I could see the medics taking cover in another bunker. So without thinking I ran down the hill, and reached into the bunker to pull this guy, Mike, out. That's when I felt something hit him and I looked down and there was a hand grenade between my legs. I just reached down, grabbed it with my right hand and pushed it into the wall of the bunker." The grenade exploded and Karl's hand was blown off; both men were thrown from the foxhole. Instead of panicking, he picked up the wounded soldier and ran to a more protected position, saving both their lives. For his bravery, he received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

A below-elbow amputee using a bionic hand, Karl's passions have included skydiving, Kenpo karate, auto racing, scuba diving and golf. In business he has been a salesman, a "repo man" and a private investigator. And in the broad scope of life, Karl has been a soldier, an upper extremity amputee, a successful prosthetic user, a peer visitor, a volunteer kidney donor, and for the past 23 years, Patty's husband. Karl knows about Winter and her prosthetic tail and thinks it's phenomenal. Karl would love to meet Winter. He first learned about her from a news story when he lived in Massachusetts. Karl also learned more about Winter from a fellow amputee who had the opportunity to wade with Winter, and on the Hanger website.


Sergeant Bill Dunham: Special Forces, "Operation Just Cause" in Panama

42-year-old retired Sergeant Bill Dunham of the U.S. Army's 75th Ranger Regiment lost his leg to machine gun fire during the invasion of Panama known as Operation "Just Cause," December 20, 1989. A member of the elite U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Dunham was assigned to a regiment whose mission was to parachute into the Panamanian Defense Force's 6th Infantry Company at Rio Hato, secure the airfield, and apprehend Manuel Noriega. During the mission, Dunham and four fellow soldiers were hit by friendly fire; two of the men died, including Dunham's squad leader, and three of the men were severely wounded. Dunham sustained the worst injuries of the survivors.

Dunham was airlifted to Willford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Over the next three years, Dunham underwent 21 surgeries. Initial attempts were made to save his leg, but ultimately it had to be amputated above the knee. During his recovery, Dunham received visits from Ross Perot and President George H. W. Bush, who presented him with his combat jump wings.

Dunham went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in History and Master of Science in Defense and Strategic Studies. He held intelligence and security management positions with the Pentagon and a major U.S. corporation. Currently, Dunham is an employee of Hanger in Oklahoma where he receives his prosthetic care and serves as a regional Amputee Empowerment Partners (AEP) coordinator, providing peer-to-peer support visits with people who are facing an amputation or have undergone an amputation.

Bill had the opportunity to meet Winter shortly after Hanger starting working with her. He was able to watch Winter swim with her prosthetic tail and thrive despite the recent loss of her tail fluke in a crab trap line entanglement. Bill loves to hear the many stories of those with limb loss who have been inspired by Winter and her determination, and have realized they can overcome their challenges as well. He's excited that because of the movie, people worldwide will now be able to find the same inspiration through Winter. He's hoping the movie will shed light on living life with a disability and help the general public have a better understanding and realize what an incredible feat it is for those with a disability to overcome their challenges.


Staff Sergeant Paul "Russ" Marek, US Army (Ret)

Staff Sergeant Paul Russell Marek, US Army (Ret), now retired with 100% disability rating, currently resides with his parents, Paul and Rose Marek, in Satellite Beach, Florida. Russ (his preferred name) entered the US Army in February, 1998, and became "A Tanker." Russ returned to Iraq for a second tour in January, 2005. On the evening of September 16, 2005, Marek was manning the .50 caliber machine gun in his tank's turret during a mission to interrupt a convoy of arms and explosives coming in from Iran. During that patrol in Dora, just south of Baghdad, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was detonated under his M1A1 Main Battle Tank. The enormous blast lifted the 23-ton tank turret completely off the tank, and when it came down, it buried the main gun tube eight feet in the ground. Two of the four crew members died in the attack. A second M1A1 tank, part of the same patrol up ahead, was also destroyed in this ambush and, tragically, Marek's good friend, Sgt. Matthew Deckerd, was also killed.

The ambush was devastating to his unit and the men of Charlie Company, who referred to SSG Marek as 'Uncle Paulie' since he was 34 years of age when the attack occurred. Tank Commander Marek and his Gunner, Ryan Bowen, from Ohio, survived the attack, both sustaining massive, life-changing injuries. SSG Marek lost his ‘dominant' limbs (right leg and right arm), and suffered a severe closed head brain injury to the right side of his head, which completely shut down all function on his left side, technically rendering him a Quadriplegic. He also sustained third degree burns to over 20% of his body and lost his right ear and left thumb in the explosion. Russ would spend the next 13 months in a coma.

Marek was treated in Baghdad Emergency Hospital, transferred to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, and then transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He had to be transferred to Washington Hospital Center in order to treat his burns, using Maggot Therapy, as Hurricane Rita prevented him from being transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in San Antonio, Texas. Eventually he reached BAMC and received skin grafts. When his burns healed, he was transferred to James A. Haley VA Hospital's Poly-Trauma Center in Tampa, Florida, where his rehabilitation for the brain injury commenced. While rehabilitating in Tampa, an employee at the VA suggested that he visit Winter to draw inspiration from her survival story. During his visit to CMA, Russ and his mother had the opportunity to meet Winter. After the meeting where he saw Winter swim with her prosthetic tail, Russ developed a new attitude: "If a dolphin can do this and live with a prosthetic, so can I." According to Paul, Russ's father, his meeting with Winter has inspired him. He has since learned how to swallow and has learned to walk with his prosthetics. It was difficult. According to his father, the meeting with Winter gave him the resolve to go on. His progress is remarkable; he went from using an electric wheel chair for mobility to a manual wheelchair, to a 4 point walker to now 2 canes and is about to be on one cane. He said, "If Winter can live with this so can I." His inspirational meeting with Winter gave him the resolve to go on. Winter was originally found within 30 miles of their home.

To view pictures, a video, and a Florida Today article on Russ Marek, visit these links:
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