I was only 19, but the heart-wrenching sights, rank smells, and lack of hope within the southern Chinese orphanage I was about to leave had aged me—I felt 50 and did not know how to get back the carefree outlook that had been my only travel companion across the world, only a few weeks ago. As the first volunteer through Holt International to serve in China, I taught English and worked in the Infant Unit of the Nanchang Social Welfare Institute. The heat and humidity, and all-around foreignness, were tangible factors to which I eventually adapted; however, I was unprepared to survive the hopelessness. The orphans didn't know their age, only the day they were found on the street or were left in a dumpster—an accurate guess was impossible due to underdevelopment from lack of nutrition and stimulation. Untreated physical defects such as club feet, cleft palates, and deformed or missing limbs—conditions easily treated in the US—opened my eyes to the immense need for prosthetic and orthopedic intervention on an international scale.
I flew back across the ocean, back to my own world, in a daze, and started my sophomore year at the University of Idaho. Up until then I had decided to study anything but engineering. My father is an engineering professor and characteristically introverted, so while numbers always have been comfortable for this social butterfly, I chose to study words rather than pick up any of the "engi-nerdy" tendencies for which I had unmercifully teased him. Now, I had the beautiful faces of my orphans almost haunting me. Sometime later, I stumbled upon a PowerPoint presentation posted on the web about prosthetists who traveled to Afghanistan. It perfectly illustrated a way I could begin to alleviate the need around the world that I had seen, that I had felt, that I had smelled. Those powerful pictures of dignified Afghani farmers lifting their traditional long robes to be fit with limbs captured me, and I have been fascinated with the O&P field ever since—such intensity of math and science, but also the need for unprecedented compassion!
I changed my major and for four years I battled through Idaho's robust engineering track. During those years, the images of Afghanistan were the ever-distant goal, but my motivation through my toughest moments were the growing number of pictures of our injured soldiers. The foreign sands of the Middle East represented adventure, but those boys—our children—coming back were my friends and my family and my heart.
My desire to work with soldiers and civilians began much sooner than this 23-year-old ever imagined. I persevered through many a study session, pushed through bad tests, and soaked up fascinating courses, but did not walk on my graduation day in May 2006, for I was a part of a medical team—with members from the same company who had sent workers to Afghanistan all those years before—headed to Jordan to increase the skills of four Iraqi bench workers and to fit six Iraqi lower-limb amputees. Over our two week trip to the Middle East, I donned a lab coat and learned the art of prosthetic fabrication alongside the Iraqis, I shook the hands of Jordanian dignitaries, and met international news correspondents. I cried with the amputees when news of death came from home and laughed with them as they took their first steps. My trip concluded with a tour of the O&P facilities at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, where I met some of the wounded soldiers returning home to rest physically but still fighting the mental war. My journey had come full-circle.
I am just beginning my own journey in the O&P field—this August I apprehensively migrate from my beloved Idaho home of rolling farm fields and starry skies to enter the graduate O&P program at Georgia Tech in the booming bosom of humid Atlanta. To taste the deep bitterness of need of people sometimes feels like a curse, but to be given the opportunity to alleviate that need is the sweetest of blessings, and it is this blessing that propels me forward into the unknown, into my future.
Chelan Pedrow is a graduate student in the MSPO Program at the School of Applied Physiology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. She will be sharing her experiences through articles in The O&P EDGE throughout her two-year program, internship, certification, and as she begins her professional career.