Public Affairs

VA/CSUDH Program Helps Veterans Get Back on their Feet

Nov. 10, 2011
By Elizabeth Chapin

A CSU Dominguez Hills O&P student fits her manufactured prosthetic leg on a fitting patient at a lab in the program’s facility at the VA Long Beach hospital.The California State University boasts one of only 10 orthotics and prosthetics programs in the United States—and the CSU Dominguez Hills program stands out among the rest—it’s the only one that’s physically located at a Veterans Affairs hospital. The program’s collaboration with the VA has helped hundreds of disabled veterans.

In a 10,000 square foot facility at the VA Long Beach Healthcare Center students are trained to become Certified Prosthetists and Orthotists, or CPOs—practitioners who evaluate, fabricate and fit artificial limbs, or prostheses, and orthopedic braces, or orthoses.

The program provides continuing education sessions for VA medical employees from around the country, and also provides special training clinics with five local California VA hospitals.

Students work directly with disabled veterans in clinical rotations at the West Los Angeles and Long Beach VA hospitals. They also take part in rotations at the Department of Defense’s Combat Casualty Care program at San Diego’s Balboa Naval Medical Center, where they treat soldiers wounded with amputations that are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, the program’s director, Scott Hornbeak, CPO says most of the veteran patients assisted by the program did not receive amputations caused by a traumatic injury.

“They face other chronic diseases that more commonly lead to amputations,” Hornbeak said.

In fact, most amputations are actually attributed to poor blood circulation in the feet and legs, which are symptoms commonly associated with ailments such as diabetes.

U.S. doctors perform more than 185,000 amputations every year—that’s 507 a day. It’s estimated that one out of every 200 Americans lives without one or more limbs.

With an aging population, it’s a statistic that’s only expected to increase. There’s a growing need for certified prosthetists and orthotists. The small number of programs offering the education necessary to get credentialed is one of the reasons why Hornbeak says graduates in his program enjoy a job placement rate of nearly 100 percent.

“About 350 people earn their CPO every year in the U.S.,” Hornbeak said, “so, if you do the math that means about 15 percent of our nation’s certified practitioners graduate from our program.”

About 50 undergraduate and graduate students complete the program every year, and many decide to stay and practice within the VA system once they get their CPO credentials and pass the board exams.

“We’re always encouraging graduates to seek employment at the VA,” Hornbeak says. “In fact, a number of them are now senior practitioners at VA hospitals throughout the U.S.”

The success of the program’s graduates is not only due to a competitive field. It is also attributed to the fact the students are getting hands on experience in all aspects of the profession. They even take part in the manufacture of artificial limbs in an on-site lab at the VA Long Beach facility.

Part of the process includes making a cast mold of a patient’s residual limb and using complex machinery to manufacture the prostheses’ plastic sockets and carbon fiber feet. By fabricating custom clear plastic check sockets, students can trial the devices they make to see what works best—and also work on alignment, pressure points, and improving patient comfort and mobility.

CSUDH student Mark Darcy is entering the program next semester. With his optimistic attitude, you would never guess Darcy was missing the lower portion of his left leg. It was amputated in 1998 after his battle with gangrene, caused by an infected foot blister and poor blood circulation.

Darcy regularly visits a CPO to maintain functionality of his prosthetic leg. Now he’s planning on becoming one himself. And he says as a CPO, his disability can give him an extra edge.

CSUDH student Mark Darcy is being fitted for a new gel liner for his prosthetic leg. Darcy will be entering the CSUDH O&P program next semester.“Being an amputee gives me quite a bit of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t for prostheses,” he said. “I have first-hand experience about what’s comfortable for the patient and what would allow for more mobility.
And on a psychological level, I also can relate to what he or she is going through.”

Although innovation was one of the reasons Darcy was attracted to the program, he says his initial attraction was purely emotional.

“I want to see people walk for the first time, regain their sense of worth,” Darcy says. “There’s not many other occupations where you can have such a profound impact on someone’s life. Especially someone who risked his or her life for our country. To give them something most people take for granted. It’s inspiring.”