Megan McKeon of Clovis now feels less pain when she wears her prosthetic leg, and she has a bottlenose dolphin to thank.
The dolphin is Winter, which wound up with a prosthetic tail after a crabbing net accident and is now the subject of a movie, “Dolphin Tale,” which opens in theaters Friday.
Megan, 12, is already familiar with Winter’s story and with the clingy, super-soft WintersGel invented to keep the dolphin’s new tail in place.
“Winter understands me,” Megan told her mother after swimming with the dolphin at its Florida home.
An earlier, chance meeting with the man who worked on Winter’s new tail has helped Megan. He invented the gel liner that makes Megan’s prosthetic leg fit more comfortably to her hip socket and the small section of femur that remains of her left leg.
Megan can’t remember a time when she had two legs. Her left leg was lost due to horrific abuse by her birth mother in her native Latvia.
Her adoptive father, Mark McKeon, chokes up with emotion while talking about how Megan lost her leg and how he and his wife, Susan, found her.
“It’s still hard,” he said this week while watching his daughter practice at Break the Barriers gym in northeast Fresno, where she is part of the performing team.
Megan was named Vladaslava when she was born in 2000. At 5 months, her birth mother dropped a cigarette in her crib and then passed out drunk on the floor, Mc-Keon said.
A blanket over the baby’s legs smoldered for about three hours. Both legs were badly burned and she was not expected to live.
“But she’s a fighter,” McKeon said.
McKeon, an attorney, was working in Latvia. He and Susan, a nurse working at the U.S. Embassy, heard the baby’s story and felt compelled to meet her. Then 11 months old, she had been abandoned by her mother.“She just sort of stole our hearts,” McKeon said.
Susan McKeon said she knew immediately that “this is our baby.”
They adopted her, changed her name to Megan and moved to the Netherlands for Mc-Keon’s new job. The family, which includes a grown son and daughter and an adopted son in college, moved to Clovis in 2006 for his job as an assistant U.S. attorney.
Megan was fitted for her first prosthesis when she was 4. But early models were uncomfortable and awkward to use, McKeon said, so Megan used forearm crutches — painted little-girl pink — to get around.
Megan’s connection to Winter began in 2009 when she and her parents attended a sports competition for disabled athletes in La Jolla.
Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics and one of the developers of WintersGel, spotted Megan in the crowd.
Carroll introduced himself to Megan and her parents, told them about WintersGel and said he could design a more comfortable leg for her.
Carroll and Hanger prosthetist Dan Strzempka developed the super-soft gel padding to protect Winter’s sensitive skin from her prosthetic tail. The gel’s adhesive quality creates suction against the skin, holding a prosthesis more firmly in place, but the gel can be easily removed, Carroll said.
Megan was one of the first people to use Winters Gel, which lines two different prosthetic legs — one a straight blue metal pipe fitted with a springy “running foot,” the other with a shiny yellow, pink and blue jointed “knee” for more mobility — that were designed for her by Hanger’s pediatric team in Los Angeles.
The soft linings make them easier to wear. Having a more comfortable leg has changed Megan’s life in unexpected ways.
“The first day I got the leg, it was raining and I got to hold the umbrella for the first time,” Megan said. “It’s really a big deal.”