June 29, 2005, was my first day as an above-the-knee amputee. Everything good that has happened in my life recently has stemmed from that one moment.
I had Trevor's Disease—a disorder involving the growth plates in my left knee and ankle that caused them to grow slower than the plates in my right leg. It wasn't such a big deal until third grade, when my left leg became 6cm shorter than my right leg. In 1995, at the age of nine, I spent one whole year of my life in the hospital undergoing a leg-lengthening procedure. Afterward, my leg was relatively normal again, and I continued to pursue the same activities as any other kid: soccer, golf, swimming, and just being with my friends.
Everything was going well until another growth spurt hit, and my left leg once again became significantly shorter than my right. I started walking on my tippy toes to accommodate the discrepancy. The plate in my left knee and ankle developed bone tumors that grew larger and larger as the years passed. My leg became a kind of a peg leg—useless.
When I was 17, I got home from soccer practice one night and was unable to walk without excruciating pain. That's when I knew I had a decision to make. The decision was actually really easy, plain and simple. I could have one amputation surgery and get my life back or have multiple surgeries and have a half-functioning catastrophe of scars. I decided to have my leg amputated.
Wearing a prosthesis was vital to getting my life back. Little did I know that not only would the prosthesis become a necessity in my life, but it would also foster hobbies and eventually influence my career choice.
Long-Term Goals, Short-Lived Victories
I like to set lofty, long-term goals and then work hard over a period of time to reach them. I have accomplished many of my goals, from completing an Olympic-distance triathlon and some of the hardest rock climbs ever done by an amputee, to graduating from the bachelor's degree program in orthotics and prosthetics at St. Petersburg College, Florida. While I am proud of each of these accomplishments, I have savored each moment of victory only briefly before quickly moving on to my next goal. My forward vision has at times been a fault.
There is one accomplishment, however, that I continue to savor. The day I started my prosthetics residency at Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates (POA), Orlando, Florida, is the proudest day of my life so far. POA specializes in lower-limb vacuum systems; about 90 percent of our patients are fit with vacuum-style suspension systems.
Knowing My Niche
Some O&P graduates enter their first residency not quite knowing what their niche will be, but I knew well beforehand what area of the profession I wanted to pursue. From the beginning, my passion has been lower-limb prosthetics—from helping a person take his or her first steps to teaching somebody how to run. I have an obvious personal connection with this area as well, so rather than become a jack of all trades, I thought, why not do a few things really well? Besides, it is impossible to keep up with all the updates going on in the profession, such as the huge advancements in powered upper-limb prosthetics and the various aspects of lower-limb prosthetics that require completely different skill sets and materials.
I've spent the first few months of my residency primarily getting acquainted with fabrication. One practitioner told me that you have to earn your technician's respect before you can move on through patient care, and I completely agree. Technicians are the ones who quietly (or not so quietly) make everything happen behind the scenes. At POA, we do all of our fabrication in-house, from custom silicone liners to double-wall transfemoral vacuum systems.
It is funny to think that this is what I will be doing for the rest of my life because I have never been handy. I ruin most any do-it-yourself project. So amazingly, thanks to hard work and determination, my technical skills are coming along, and I am relishing the opportunity to work on my weaknesses day after day, check socket after check socket. Although I am nowhere near perfect, I feel like I am well on my way and am excited to have embarked on the lifelong journey that is O&P.
Ronald Dickson is a graduate of the bachelor of science in orthotics and prosthetics program at St. Petersburg College, Florida. He is a resident at Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates, Orlando, Florida, and will be sharing his experiences as he completes his residency.