While most of the campus endures budget cuts, one academic program at California State University Dominguez Hills began the school year in a much larger facility thanks to a partnership with the Veterans Administration hospital in Long Beach. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez says it’s the state’s only academic training program for people who fit artificial limbs and braces.
The VA Hospital spent almost $3 million to create custom classrooms and workshops for Dominguez Hills’s Orthodics and Prosthetics program. Its coordinator Scott Hornbeak says that for the first time in its 25-year history, the program functions in ideal facilities.
"This is the prosthetics laboratory. There are benches for each prosthetics student, and it’s just a much larger space. Each prosthetic student has their own tools, their own space where they can modify plaster models."
In a white lab coat, 26-year-old Laura Podell uses elbow grease to assemble and fine-tune the artificial leg she’s made in the class.
"This is a socket, we’re actually fitting a person with a residual limb so they actually can start walking. This is a temporary socket, so we have socket, a filler, a slider unit, and then we have a pylon, and then this is our foot."
Podell says she used to love playing with Lego building blocks as a kid. Here, she’s learned to create a plaster cast in the shape of the amputee’s limb, mold plastic around it to create the socket and attach metal components to form the limb’s ankle and foot. Coordinator Scott Hornbeak says companies that fill prescriptions for artificial limbs are eager to hire the 48 people the program graduates each year.
"There’s not enough prosthetists and orthetists in the United States, so most of these graduates get jobs and move on in careers and eventually manage a practice."
He says this seven-month program provides basic certification. Its prerequisites include a bachelor’s degree along with physics, anatomy, and psychology classes.
"This is our training room, and in our training room we have six professional models who have below-the-knee amputation, and two students are working with each model in order to give them a custom-fit artificial limb."
Five people, most of them retired and all amputees, sit, walk, or stand as students fit and adjust the prosthetic legs they’ve custom built for each patient. Eighty-three-year-old Leon Lomax lost his leg in a motorcycle accident 30 years ago.
"I was on Slauson and Crenshaw area, and there was an 18-wheeler parked on this side of the street, and somebody came out. They didn’t see me coming and consequently when they hit me, they hit me like that and sheared my foot off in the middle of the street."
Lomax holds on to two waist-high parallel bars while students Cassie Peters and Brittany Vicknair ask if his prosthesis is comfortable. It needs adjustment. Peters crouches with a long Allen wrench and an alignment tool.
"I was trying to move the socket so that it fit him best," Peters said. When asked how it was, Lomax replied "Oh, it feels fine, they’re doing an excellent job. I think I’ll hang on to both of them."
Peters and Vicknair studied business administration in college. Peters says this profession better suits her passion to help people. For Vicknair, the attraction is even more personal. She’s worn two prosthetic legs since hers were amputated.
"I got bacterial meningitis when I was 18 and I’m 23 now."
She wanted to learn everything she could about artificial limbs.
"I wanted to learn about it so I could figure out what I can do to better myself, and then I started volunteering and seeing other people in the same position as me. Being able to help them made me feel great."
The demand is growing for people who know how to manufacture and fit artificial limbs. Surgeons across the country perform more than 500 amputations each day. Instructor Scott Hornbeak says this has less to do than you might think with soldiers who’ve lost limbs in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
"There’s about a thousand limb amputees that have come out of these two wars. But by far the greatest number of people who need artificial limbs and braces have different diseases such as diabetes or arteriosclerosis."
In another area of the training room, Steve Mendoza and Brian Ruhe chat about prosthetics. Mendoza lost his right leg below the knee to a diabetes-related infection.
Ruhe’s taking an advanced version of this course. He holds an engineering doctorate, and he wants to design better prosthetic devices. Mendoza says Ruhe possesses an intuitive bedside manner. One reason, Ruhe guesses, is that he lost both legs in a car accident when he was 18.
"I’ve learned it being a patient, since I wear devices. I’ve been a patient for 16 years, and I’ve seen how prosthetists have interacted with me. There’s good, there’s bad, and you sort of catalogue that, at least I do.
"And you know what works and what shouldn’t be said when you’re around a patient, so you have to connect with them in a way but also have some authority in order to be like, this is probably what’s best."
In spite of budget cuts elsewhere in the Cal State system, the Orthotics and Prosthetics program at Dominguez Hills is likely to expand. Plans are in the works to offer a Master's degree in three years.