After a lifetime coping with Trevor's disease, a developmental disorder that left one leg shorter than the other, Ronnie Dickson had his left leg amputated the summer he graduated from high school.
Three years later, he left the University of South Florida, where he was majoring in English, and entered the fledgling College of Orthotics and Prosthetics at St. Petersburg College.
Dickson, now 21, credits the man who fitted him with an artificial limb for his life-changing decision.
He "helped me accomplish more than I used to," he said. "The feelings of satisfaction that I myself as a patient had with him, I wanted to go and give back in my own way."
SPC's program, launched in 2005, is one of only four in the country that offers a bachelor's degree in orthotics and prosthetics and the only one of its kind in the Southeast. Its board of advisers includes representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Only 24 students are accepted each year. They study human anatomy and physiology, biomechanics and gait analysis. After graduation, they perform a yearlong residency in orthotics — the use of braces and splints — and another in prosthetics, then sit for national boards.
Many are strongly grounded in science, said college dean Sam Phillips. Some have worked in the field as technicians. Others, like Dickson, have a more personal connection.
"It takes someone who has both the artistic flair and someone who understands the science and technology," Phillips said. "It takes a unique personality, but for that person, it's extremely rewarding."
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Step inside the college's brand-new lab on SPC's Pinellas Park campus and you'll find a high-tech workshop filled with sanders and buffers, vises and sewing machines.
One room houses a big vat of powdery plaster; another, a giant oven for melting plastic. Ventilation hoses snake up the walls.
A dedication ceremony last week attracted dignitaries such as U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, whose interest in Iraqi war veterans helped SPC land the funds to open the college.
Also in attendance was Warren MacDonald, a double amputee injured in a 1997 mountain climbing accident who continues to climb mountains and makes a living as an inspirational speaker.
"You guys already know this, but it's a pretty awesome facility," MacDonald told 30 students who gathered to hear him speak. "It's cool what you guys have here."
Jessica Imhoff knows she has landed in a special place. The 22-year-old senior found out about the program when she was a sophomore studying physical therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University. She spent two years saving money so she could transfer to SPC.
"We're spoiled here," said Imhoff, who is president of the college's orthotics and prosthetics society. "Every practitioner who comes to visit tells us that."
Imhoff decided to become a prosthetist after working alongside her uncle, who crafts artificial limbs for amputees in Virginia. Last summer, she helped create a swim prosthesis for a 9-year-old boy, a triple amputee. She also worked with a war veteran intent on running a marathon despite having only one leg.
"The field really humbles you," she said. "It makes you realize any problem you have is minimal compared to the people you're helping."
Besides being intrigued by the technology, Imhoff was attracted to the artistic side of the field. Ensuring that a prosthesis matches an existing limb is crucial to a patient's confidence in using it, she said.
"I always ask, 'Would I wear this product? Would I put it on my mom or my grandma?' " she said. "If it passes that test, then I think I can fit a patient with it."
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The demand for orthotics and prosthetics professionals is higher than ever, according to a recent report issued by the National Commission on Orthotics and Prosthetic Education.
Among the group's findings: Only 61 percent of those who need orthotics can find a qualified professional to help them. Compounding the problem is the fact that most of the approximately 4,000 qualified professionals in the United States have been practicing for more than 20 years, which means many will retire in the next decade.
"There's a tremendous need," said Phillips, the college dean. "Right now, we're producing only enough graduates to maintain the size of the field but not to increase it."
An aging population combined with an increase in chronic diseases like diabetes make the situation even more challenging, Phillips said.
While returning war veterans are not contributing substantially to the number of amputees in the United States, Phillips said, they're definitely bringing attention to the issue of health care.
SPC's response to the growing need came just before the formation of the Florida College Task Force, a group making recommendations to the Legislature for the transition of some community colleges to four-year-degree colleges. Some point to SPC's orthotics and prosthetics program as a prime example of the kind of four-year program that community colleges in Florida could begin offering.
For students like Dickson, the increased access to high-quality programs could open a world of possibilities, despite concern that the new breed of colleges wouldn't measure up to Florida's state universities.
Though his English classes at USF were "nothing short of excellent," Dickson ended up dual-enrolling at Hillsborough Community College for some of his general education courses because at USF "it was downright discouraging" to take those classes with 300 people.
Dickson isn't concerned about fixing the education system. He simply wants to help people who, like him, have lost a limb. Summers spent in Venezuela have exposed him to people forced to live on the streets, "on crutches, just begging for money. There is no help for those people."
Unless, of course, students like Dickson offer it.