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, McKeon 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 McKeon'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.
"I could see she had a huge heart and an unbelievable amount of energy," Carroll said this week from Hanger's Florida headquarters.
Carroll introduced himself to Megan and her parents, told them about WintersGel and said he could design a more comfortable leg for her.
Carroll's description raised Megan's hopes.
"I was thinking he could really do it," she said. "If he can make a tail for a dolphin, he can probably make a leg for a little girl."
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 WintersGel, 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. While Megan could tolerate her old prosthesis only a few hours a week, now she can wear the new ones for about three hours at a time.
Having a more comfortable leg has changed Megan's life in unexpected ways. With no crutches to hold, her hands are free to do things others take for granted.
"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."
She's getting around more easily at Dry Creek Elementary School, where she is in the sixth grade. Her favorite subjects are art and writing.
She's also manager of the Dry Creek cross-country team but participates in many sports outside school – surfing, snowboarding, snow skiing, water skiing and gymnastics.
And maybe more. "I'm thinking about going out for wrestling and swimming," Megan said. "Oh! And I just got a new hand-cycle."
Having only one leg doesn't stop Megan, Mark McKeon said. "The word 'can't' isn't in her vocabulary," he said. "You can still do sports, just in a different way."
Sports and exercise are important, Megan said, because they help her build the muscles that help her walk.
Megan doesn't plan to see "Dolphin Tale" today. She's already seen the movie at a special screening in Fresno and attended a recent benefit premier in Hollywood, where she posed for press photos with the movie's human stars.
But Megan, who swam with Winter at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, hopes Winter's story will inspire others.
"She's amazing," Megan said. "I've never met such an animal."
Winter seems to sense the needs of amputees and people with handicaps, Carroll said: "She empathizes."
Megan and others from Winter's real-life story appear briefly just before the credits at the end of the movie. Carroll, who also appears in the clip, said Megan "represents the thousands of children who have come there to see Winter." Many of them are amputees or have another disability, he said.