COLUMBIA CITY – The whole thing seems crazy, if she thinks about it.
But maybe the best sign of where she’s at now is that a lot of times, she just doesn’t think about her prosthetic leg at all.
From the outside, it can be hard to imagine how Katrina Simpkins could ever not think about her right leg made of plastic and steel, with its various parts and braces extending from her hip to the painted toenails on its foot.
But that’s because you don’t live with it every day. It hasn’t been a part of your life since you were a toddler.
I get up in the morning, put my leg on, and do all my chores, Katrina says. What?
Things have changed dramatically since she was a depressed little girl, lonely and shy, afraid of anyone noticing her then-clunky and ill-fitting leg.
Now, the lithe 13-year-old says – with a slow tilt of her head and a knowing smile – she doesn’t care whether people notice.
I don’t have people bullying me anymore. I stand my ground, she said. I don’t have people walking all over me anymore.
And, yes, sometimes when she’s with her friends in Columbia City she forgets about her helper leg entirely.
But there are reminders. And more of them since the recent release of Katrina and Winter: Partners in Courage, a children’s book by author Nancy Stewart about Katrina and how her meeting a dolphin named Winter changed her life.
Stewart’s Sea Turtle Summer recently hit No. 1 on Amazon.com’s Hot New Releases in Children’s Books and won the Children’s Literary Classics Seal of Approval. Another of her books, One Pelican at a Time, was featured in a PBS special about the Gulf Coast.
Katrina was a dream to work with, Stewart said by telephone from her home in Florida. She is smart and so brave, and very, very savvy about her condition and how the world sees her condition. I’ve seen her mature from an awkward little girl into a self-actualizing, beautiful young woman.
Katrina was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a birth defect in which the hip end of the thigh bone does not develop. The condition can vary in its severity, but for Katrina, where her right knee would normally be is instead her foot. A surgery at age 1 turned her foot backward so that her ankle can act as a knee joint, and prosthetic legs since then have let her walk.
Katrina and Winter tells the story of how Winter, a baby bottlenose dolphin, lost her tail and nearly died when she was entangled in rope from a crab trap but was rescued and taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Fla., where she received a revolutionary prosthetic tail.
When the Simpkins family stopped at the aquarium in 2007 on a vacation, something happened: Katrina and Winter looked at each other, and suddenly everything changed for Katrina. The depressed little girl with the fake leg wasn’t alone in the world anymore.
Stewart and Katrina teamed up to do some publicity for the book in Florida this month. They visited elementary schools, and when Stewart read the part about Katrina and Winter’s first meeting – She’s just like me. She’s just like me. – the children knew exactly what she meant, she said.
They got it instantly, Stewart said. You could see the flashes on their face; they just absolutely got it.
After that first encounter in 2007, Katrina’s experience with Winter grew into an extraordinary program at the aquarium where children with disabilities from all over the country flocked to Clearwater and connected with Winter. Even wounded Iraq war veterans found solace in spending time with Winter.
Katrina and the dolphin have been on CNN, The Today Show, and a four-part series in the St. Petersburg newspaper about Katrina and Winter was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.
Her story inspired the feature film, Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Kris Kristofferson.
The readings Katrina and Stewart did a couple of weeks ago in the St. Petersburg area were packed, said Katrina’s mother, Maria Simpkins.
All these people started coming in, and Katrina didn’t realize they were there to see her, Maria Simpkins said. There was one family from Colorado that was there on vacation and saw it on the news, so they came. Another family brought their boy who had a brace on his leg.
Katrina still doesn’t understand why people call her a hero, but she does understand that she was given an incredible gift through Winter and that she has to give that gift to others. She’s still amazed at the difference of her life before Winter and after Winter.
Everything has changed. Everything, she said. It’s like I’m a whole new, different person.
And even if she thinks it’s silly that people call her a hero or say they’re inspired by her, if she can give someone else what Winter gave her, then that’s all that matters.
She conducts herself in a manner that many, many adults never achieve, and she’s an absolute hero to me, Stewart says. I think to come to that realization, to come to that acceptance and embrace it – she now embraces her condition – she makes her difference normal. And that is an amazing, amazing thing.
For Katrina, though, most of her summer will be spent on things she considers amazingly normal: Helping take care of her cute 3-month-old nephew, horseback riding and soon a new activity, cheerleading.
I’m thinking about so many things: colleges, schools I want to go to, she says. Sure, I’m only in middle school, but you’ve got to plan for all that.