It was just amazing to watch him because he forgot everything with his NF. He forgot about the pain. He forgot about his tumor. He forgot about his bone issues. That’s what it looked like to me as a mom. – Kelly Carpenter

SALT LAKE CITY — Spending countless hours in doctors' offices and physical therapy clinics could be disheartening. But for Travis Carpenter, a 7-year-old boy with a tumor, and Winter, a 9-year-old dolphin with a prosthetic tail, physical setbacks have created a bond between them and only motivated them to work harder.

Travis met Winter during a family trip to Florida earlier this year, and upon returning home, he exuded more energy and a willingness to test his limits.

"It’s been amazing once we’ve been back home how much energy Travis has, how he is getting around better," Travis' mother, Kelly Carpenter, told the Deseret News. "We notice him ditching his walker more and just walking on his own, which is fabulous. … It’s been a healing that no medicine can provide, that emotional healing for all of us."

Travis was born with neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that occurs in 1 in every 3,000 births. The condition, commonly called NF, causes tumors to form on nerves throughout the body. Although the tumors are generally benign, they can become cancerous. NF is usually diagnosed during childhood or adolescence, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Travis began showing signs of NF at 4 months old.

"He started getting these birthmarks, and most everybody has a couple, but when you get six or more of a certain size, then that’s one of the clues that you may have NF," Carpenter said. "By 6 months of age, we knew Travis had NF."

Carpenter and her husband took Travis to a geneticist when he was just over a year old, and one day, the couple noticed his left leg was longer than his right. Within two weeks, Travis was struggling to straighten his left leg.

They soon learned that Travis had structural problems with his femur, hip, knee and tibia, which are common among NF patients.

"His femur doesn’t go into the hip socket," Carpenter said. "It doesn’t bend. It hits it straight on. His femur is bowed. It’s longer than it should be. His tibia is bowed. His knee structure is messed up. And even at a year and a half, Travis still wasn’t walking."

Travis started physical therapy and began walking within nine months. The discrepancy between the lengths of his legs, however, increased from 1.5 centimeters to 4 centimeters.

Shortly after Travis learned to walk, the Carpenters met with their geneticist, who described the symptoms of tumors that could form in NF patients. Travis fit the description.

"I just remember talking with the geneticists about the tumors that can form with NF, and he was like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it unless the birthmarks are really big, and they overlap, and one area is bigger than another.’ And our physical therapist happened to be at the appointment, and we looked at each other, and we said, 'That’s exactly what Travis has. Travis’ left thigh is visibly bigger than his right, and he has a big area of birthmarks,' " Carpenter said.

"Two weeks later, Travis had an MRI confirming that he has a tumor that starts at his lower back, and it’s all in his hip joint and goes all the way, basically now, it goes all the way down his left leg."

The tumor was not cancerous, but it prevents surgery to correct the length of Travis' legs.

The Carpenters, who were living in Cheyenne, Wyoming, found doctors and physical therapists in Salt Lake City through the University of Utah and Shriners Hospital for Children. After making the 1,000-mile round-trip many times, they moved to Utah in 2011.

They soon learned that the bones in Travis' left leg were weak and could easily break. In 2011, Travis broke his tibia and femur after falling off a step. Just last summer, Travis slipped in the bathtub and fractured his femur.

"You can have weaker bones without a tumor or a tumor without weaker bones," Carpenter said. "We just have both, unfortunately."

For the past four years, Travis has worn a shin guard designed by specialists at Shriners Hospital to protect his leg. While Travis often tries to walk on his own, he uses a walker and a motorized wheelchair to help him on difficult days.

In January, Travis and his family traveled to Daytona, Florida, for a racecar event hosted by the Children's Tumor Foundation.

While the Carpenters were in Florida, a family friend invited Travis to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to meet Winter, the dolphin featured in the "Dolphin Tale" and "Dolphin Tale 2" films.

In 2005, Winter was found tangled in a crab trap line near Cape Canaveral, Florida. The line cut off circulation to the 3-month-old dolphin's tail flukes, and she had extensive injuries. She was transported to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a non-profit aquarium for rescued animals, where many efforts were made to help her heal, but her tail deteriorated and couldn't be saved.

To help her swim, Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics Inc. and Dr. Mike Walsh created a prosthetic tail for Winter in 2010. This story is featured in the first "Dolphin Tale" movie, in which Winter stars as herself.

Travis was drawn to Winter after watching the movies.

"Travis just really connected with her like in the movie," Carpenter said. "Travis would say, " ‘Oh, she wears a brace like I do. She wears a special sock like I do.' This dolphin has gone through a lot of medical challenges, like he goes through a lot of challenges. They both never give up."

The Carpenters thought Travis might get a picture taken with Winter and be allowed to pet her. But Clearwater Marine Aquarium had something special planned.

"When we were there, we found the extent of it, that he was going to help the trainers, like an assistant trainer, with Winter," Carpenter said. "I’m tearing up now, and I was crying then. He was so excited. He had a blast. I really enjoyed it. It was just amazing to watch him because he forgot everything with his NF. He forgot about the pain. He forgot about his tumor. He forgot about his bone issues. That’s what it looked like to me as a mom."

Amy Binder, the director of public relations and media for Clearwater Marine Aquarium, said the staff didn't recognize the impact Winter could have until Warner Bros. released "Dolphin Tale" in 2011, and Clearwater experienced an influx of visitors.

"It basically came about unbeknownst to us," Binder said. "Winter and her story are absolutely amazing, and it’s a compelling story in and of itself. But what we realized, little by little, we learned and it just kind of happened that people — I mean, a lot of kids, for sure — but people of all ages just found inspiration through this dolphin. We actually use this slogan sometimes: 'If Winter can, I can.' It has almost become this pilgrimage of sorts for people to say, 'I need to come here and see this dolphin that has persevered through so much.' They draw so much inspiration from it."

For the past four years, Clearwater has partnered with organizations such as Shriners Hospital and the Make-a-Wish Foundation to help children and adults connect with the rescued animals.

"For a lot of kids, we hope that it just becomes a really happy and bright spot in their day and even in their whole lives because we’ve had parents tell us that they haven’t seen their child smile in months or even years. It’s so sad to say," Binder said. "But when they meet one of our resident animals, they see a smile that they haven’t seen in so long. … Obviously, you can’t put any type of value to that at all. And for us to be here and have that opportunity and that ability to do something like that, it’s pretty special."

For Travis, it's an experience he and his family will never forget.

"She's my friend now," Travis said. "She really is my friend."

Email: spetersen@deseretnews.com | Twitter: @Sarah_DNews