Emily - Roadmap to Prosthetics
What do you do for a living? Certified Prosthetist/Orthotist (CPO)
What does a day at your job look like? CPOs are medical practitioners, so we spend our work days meeting with patients. The type of the patients will vary, we see amputation patients, patients with gait deviations after a stroke, patients with spinal fractures or deformities, and children who need helmets for cranial remolding to name a few. After the patient is referred by their surgeon or primary care physician, I meet with them, evaluate them, decide what they need, and then make the device. To make a prosthetic (for a lower limb amputation patient for example), I’d take a mold of their leg with fiberglass or plaster to capture it’s shape, make an initial plastic socket to confirm fit, make adjustments if they feel too much pressure in a certain area or it’s too loose in another, and then send it out for fabrication of the final socket once the fit is right. Then I teach them to walk/function with it, making adjustments as needed. Once the final device is done, patients move on to Occupational or Physical Therapy. However, the CPO does follow-up with patients for years after the final fitting to continue to assess if device fits, adjust it for changes in musculature over time, provide supplies like liners (a sock-like material that fits between the device and the patient’s skin) and make sure it’s working the way it needs to. Some CPO clinics are hospital based and some are free-standing.
What path did you take to get here?
· As a kid, I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up
· In high school I discovered I liked calculus and physics so I decided to go the engineer route instead
· Got my bachelor’s in Biomedical Engineering from University of Minnesota
· While in college I got in with a research group at the Minnesota VA researching rehab devices, wheelchairs and prosthetics. This was my first exposure to this field of work.
· I graduated and worked as an engineer in Iowa at a wireless vital signs company for 18 months, but I missed prosthetics and was not having as much fun as I wanted to
· So I went back to school to get a Master’s in Prosthetics and Orthotics at Northwestern University in Chicago. You have to have a Master’s to get certified. It’s a 2-year program and then a 1-2 year residency in Prosthetics, Orthotics or both, and then passing Boards.
What are the challenges of your job?
1. Making decisions, because those decisions affect people’s lives. I don’t ever want to make a decision that causes people pain.
2. Keeping up with all of the new technology that comes out, like design changes and improvements in devices.
What are the blessings of your job?
1. It’s so rewarding to help people. I had a young amputation patient recently and when she put on the prosthesis, she was able to walk for the first time since her amputation. It’s amazing to be a part of that.
2. CPOs are a small community, everybody knows everybody. It’s tight-knit and supportive.
What 3 characteristics would someone have to possess or develop to do your job well?
1. Communication – you’re working with people every day. Being able to know when to explain something to them but also know when they need you to listen.
2. Patience - for yourself and your patients. Being able to take your time making decisions.
3. Hand skills – this work is more hands-on then some people realize at first because you’re using tools to cast, re-cast and adjust the device. Being comfortable using tools.
What 3 steps would you tell someone to take now to start on their journey to doing what you do?
1. Talk to a CPO clinic and get in to shadow or volunteer. As much exposure as you can get will help in the long run. Clinicians can answer questions and you’ll see if you like it when you’re there.
2. Learning as much as you can. Taking pre-requisite classes such as anatomy and physics to make sure you’re interested in those things.
3. Get experience with hands-on work. Learn to use drills, drill-presses, 3D printers, CNC machines. It prepares you for the type of hands-on work you’ll be doing in this field.
I also find accounts for amputations or limb differences on Instagram really inspiring