I’m going to tell you a story about the amazing ability of assistive technology to transform lives. This story is about Fuji, a 34-year old bottlenose dolphin at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan, the world’s second largest aquarium, whose name means “beautiful ocean” in okinawan dialect. Fuji has lived at Churaumi for 30 years, and she has three children who were born and raised there. One day the aquarium’s veterinarian noticed that Fuji’s tail was turning white. He discovered that Fuji had an infection and circulatory problem that was causing gangrene. The doctors were able to save Fuji’s life, but they had to remove her tail fin. This dramatically impaired Fuji’s ability to swim and be social, and also she started to gain weight. While medical science saved her, Fuji’s quality of life was greatly reduced by the loss of her tail. Looking for a solution, the aquarium’s manager contacted Bridgestone, Japan’s largest maker of tires. Drawing on their expertise in rubber, Bridgestone designed an artificial tail for Fuji made of silicone, a material that is highly compatible with living tissue. The tail is mounted with an attachment made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic. Fuji spent several months in rehab with her new tail, and like most patients who try assistive technology for the first time, she didn’t respond well to the rubber fin. At one point she was treating it like a toy; she kicked too hard and it fell apart. But soon Fuji realized that the tail was giving her a better life, allowing her to swim, get fit, play with her children, and remain an integral part of the aquarium’s outdoor dolphin show, where today, she can jump entirely out of the water. For Fuji — a truly “bionic dolphin” — quality of life has been restored. Hopefully she’ll have many more years of happiness in her subterranean world where, with her rubber fin she’ll continue to be treated as equal by the other dolphins –and the true power of her tail will have been realized.
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