Dolphin-loving girl surprised with special 3D-printed arm

A 10-year-old born without part of her right arm gets a big surprise when an actor from the "Dolphin Tale" films presents her with a new, marine-themed prosthetic.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

Annika Emmert with Winter the Dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Annika's prosthetic arm was 3D-printed using Stratasys technology. Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Annika Emmert knew she was about to get a new prosthetic arm. She did not know her fancy new 3D-printed appendage would reflect her love of marine life and be presented to her by an actor from her favorite movie franchise, "Dolphin Tale."

It's fair to say the 10-year-old had quite the morning Thursday. That's when actor Cozi Zuehlsdorff surprised her with her new limb during a family vacation to Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Fla.

Emmert, an honor roll student who lives in Southern California, was born without part of her right forearm. She has worn multiple prosthetics over the years, but they haven't always made for effortless movement or maximum comfort. The one pictured at right, for example, allowed her to hold her guitar pick and play the instrument, but it also caused her pain.

This prosthetic arm allowed Annika Emmert to play the guitar, but it also strained her elbow.

"She worked very hard to use it and didn't tell me she had injured her tendon in her elbow as a result," her mother, KaRon Bryson-Emmert, told CNET's Crave blog. "The weight of the material that was used, and the length beyond her own arm, put so much pressure on her elbow and what we refer to as her wrist."

The new arm, created using Stratasys technology, boasts several advantages.

"The prototypes we have been able to try and use were so much easier...lightweight, almost zero strain on the elbow when picking up items," her mom said. "The hand will actually hold a hair brush and allow her to brush her hair. Not to mention, hold onto the seat belt while buckling. No more holding the strap with her chin."

The hand does all that via electrodes triggered by Emmert's muscles that enable her to open, close and grip her bionic hand.

Beyond the utilitarian improvements, the fashionable 3D-printed portion of the arm features an ocean theme that's light blue with floral designs, much like corral.

Emmert's new arm -- which measures about 14 inches (35 centimeters) in length and weighs less than 3 pounds -- comes courtesy of Limbitless Solutions, a student-led nonprofit at the University of Central Florida that engineers low-cost customized 3D-printed bionic limbs for children with disabilities, and arranged the aquarium surprise.

Earlier this year, Limbitless paired with Robert Downey Jr. to present a new, 3D-printed bionic Iron Man appendage to a 7-year-old fan born with a partially developed right arm.

Founder Albert Manero, a Fulbright Scholar studying for a doctorate in mechanical engineering, hopes Limbitless will get kids excited about the possibilities of engineering.

The young Emmert -- an avid soccer player who wishes she could swing on monkey bars and ride a bike like her friends -- thought she'd be receiving her new arm Friday at the University of Central Florida. Instead, she got it during a tour of the Clearwater aquarium, where she also spent time with Winter the dolphin, who has worn prosthetic tails since getting entangled in a crab trap line at just 3 months old.

Fittingly, Winter also got an upgraded new tail Thursday.

"Throughout Winter's life, she has had close to over 50 different tails, as they often need replacing due to wear and tear," David Yates CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, told CNET. "Similar to getting a new pair of shoes, each new tail has a different feel each time."

Best wishes to buddies Annika and Winter as they keep on growing and thriving.