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Prosthetics field drawing more students

EDINA, Minn. -- Melissa Stockwell had planned a career in the Army. Then a roadside bomb blew away her left leg on April 13, 2004. The injuries that ended one calling opened another for Stockwell, the first female member of the U.S. military to l...

EDINA, Minn. -- Melissa Stockwell had planned a career in the Army. Then a roadside bomb blew away her left leg on April 13, 2004.

The injuries that ended one calling opened another for Stockwell, the first female member of the U.S. military to lose a limb in Iraq.

Every day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., she watched amputees get up and walk. She also watched the man who made it happen, a prosthetist who fit recovering soldiers with artificial limbs and helped them take their first new steps.

"Before I even got fitted, he brought me into the back and showed me how it would be made," said Stockwell, 26, who attended high school in Edina. "I got back to the room and began thinking."

Stockwell returned to Minnesota to study prosthetics at Century College, one of a handful of schools in the nation offering accredited prosthetics programs.

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Technicians are trained to make orthotics -- braces and devices to enhance or correct current functions -- as well as prosthetics -- replacement limbs. Practitioners work with patients in fitting, selecting and tailoring devices.

The White Bear Lake college is the only U.S. school offering technician and practitioner degrees in orthotics and in prosthetics, a popular career combination. The technician programs have waiting lists, and fewer than half of those who apply to practitioner programs are accepted, said Ed Haddon, director of orthotics and prosthetics education for Century who helped launch the technician programs in 1975.

Also growing is the demand for help, from patients as well as employers. All of the nation's schools combined can't keep up with job openings, Haddon said.

"I get calls from labs and clinics all of the time pleading for practitioners," he said.

Several factors are feeding demand, he said. One is an increase in trauma injuries from recreational vehicles -- ATVs, motorcycles and personal watercraft. Then there is the aging population and the growing number of diabetics who need orthotics to compensate for loss of muscle control and circulation, he said.

The program has grown dramatically since the college opened its first technician programs in 1975 with a dozen students. Century later added the two practitioner programs, and the combined programs now have 111 students, Haddon said.

A new lab opening next year will ease crowding.

Students are drawn to the program for a variety of reasons, Haddon said. Prosthetics and orthotics are less obscure to recent high school graduates, who in the past decade have seen more of their classmates wearing adaptive medical gear, he said.

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Some, like Stockwell, are amputees themselves, who feel that in this area, their loss can work to their advantage. Prosthetists develop long-term relationships with patients, she said, because the remaining limb constantly is changing. That relationship is critical, she said.

"You can relate to them more," said Stockwell, of Minneapolis.

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