The orthotic and prosthetic labs at Century College are humming on a Monday morning.
Students in goggles hunch over their workbenches, intently pounding, screwing and precisely measuring an array of complicated-looking metal and plastic works as a sewing machine hums nearby. In an adjoining room, plaster human torsos, mummy-like in white wrappings, take shape. In another, dust flies as an artificial lower leg is honed into final shape on a sanding machine.
For nearly 40 years, the White Bear Lake school's orthotic and prosthetic (O&P) program s have been a leader in its field, attracting students from across the nation and around the world. Its future was given a major boost this fall with the awarding of a $4.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor — part of $11.2 million given to four other institutions — aimed at training even more students over the next three years to address a shortage of workers in a growing part of the health care field, said Kathy Bell, Century College's dean of nursing and allied health.
"Like so much of the health care field, it's evolving very quickly," said Bell. Not only is demand for O&P services increasing, fueled by factors like the aging population and the proliferation of diabetes, but more students than ever are clamoring to get into the specialized profession, many of them seeking second careers.
Schools training those students are also facing new accreditation standards as well, and the grant will help meet those demands along with expanding distance learning to make the programs available to more students, she said.
There is typically a waiting list to get into the programs, which have about 90 students, said Stan O'Connor, director of O&P education and a prosthetic technician instructor. And it boasts a 100 percent job placement record (provided a graduate is willing to look beyond the Twin Cities for a job).
Prosthetics is the science of designing, creating and properly fitting devices to replace limbs or partial limbs that have been lost as a result of trauma or disease. Orthotics, which is much more commonly encountered by people, involves creating devices that assist body parts to do their anatomical jobs — such as knee braces worn by athletes or back supports to correct curvature of the spine.
Not only is Century College one of only a handful of schools that offers training in the fields, O'Connor said, but it is unique in that it is the only one in the nation offering two levels of training in both the prosthetics and orthotics fields — practitioner and technician. Along with two- and four-year programs, Century is working with Concordia University in St. Paul to develop a master's program beginning next year.
The practitioner and technician work in tandem with one another to help patients, said Roger Wagner, prosthetic practitioner instructor. The practitioner, who has more advanced training, consults with a patient to determine what type of device a patient needs, creates a treatment plan and oversees the fabrication of the prosthetic or orthotic devices. The technician actually fabricates the devices.
The training students receive is hands-on, mimicking what they will face in helping their patients who are grappling with what is sometimes the worst ordeals of their lives.
"One thing our students look at in how we deliver our curriculum compared to how other departments deliver their curriculum, is that we apply it right away," said Tony Pehoski, orthotic technician instructor. "We practice a lot of fitting, and we work with real patients."
Advances in prosthetic technology make teaching a challenge, the instructors said. Wagner has a collection of artificial legs showing the evolution from primitive-looking wooden legs carved by hand to one made with molded leather to the elegant J-shaped carbon-fiber springy limbs made famous by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius in the 2012 Olympics. Now students learn how to use resin and fabricated metal to form limbs to exacting measurements
While students have an opportunity to learn in a real-life setting, creating braces and artificial limbs, the medical devices they create stay on campus, Wagner said, though parts are reused and some are donated overseas. There are two reasons for that: potential medical liability issues and not putting the school in competition with businesses.
"It's a good field for students who like working with patients, but don't want to spend a lifetime in college," Wagner said, adding it's a field that allows you to both solve problems with your mind and be creative with your hands. "Honestly, that's what drew me to this field. It has a very unique niche in health care, and usually nobody knows anything about it unless you have a personal involvement with it.
"It's rewarding, incredibly rewarding," he said.