Although he modestly says that in any given aspect of O&P, he can name at least ten professionals who surpass him in expertise, John W. Michael is arguably unique in the sheer scope of his knowledge and experience. His professional know-how encompasses at least nine dimensions: clinical care, research, writing, education, business, legislation and regulation, product development, international O&P, and consulting. He is noted for giving generously and freely of his time and knowledge wherever it is needed; in fact, he could well be called O&P's "go-to guy."
Michael's education and research credits include co-editing and writing chapters for several major textbooks, authoring more than 50 peer-reviewed articles, presenting at numerous national and international professional conferences, and teaching students and experienced clinicians in classes and workshops.
He has served the O&P profession nationally and internationally as past president of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy), as honorary secretary of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (ISPO) and as chair, chair emeritus, and treasurer of the U.S. Member Society of ISPO (USISPO). In addition, he has served on numerous committees of the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association (AOPA), the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Pedorthics (ABC), and on the advisory boards of several industry publications. Although he does not seek accolades, Michael has been honored by his peers many times. He has received the Academy's Outstanding Clinician Award (1992), the Distinguished Practitioner Award (1997), and the Outstanding Researcher Award (2007). In 2010, Michael was presented with the Academy's highest honor: the Titus-Ferguson Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Career That Almost Wasn't
With so many achievements to his credit, it might seem that Michael was destined for a career in O&P, but his professional story begins as a career that almost wasn't. Despite numerous obstacles to enter a field that fascinated him, his unstoppable determination, several serendipitous events, and his uncanny ability to take and create opportunities for professional growth not only kept his career on track, but also helped him to expand his circle of expertise in unique and far-reaching ways.
Michael graduated magna cum laude from Michigan State University, East Lansing, in 1971 with a degree in psychology. He worked as a psychiatric caseworker while his wife, Linda, completed her education at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. Because he enjoys working with his hands, he also had a handyman business on the side. Finally, Linda suggested it might be better to find just one job that combined both interests.
As Michael searched for ideas, including taking a vocational-aptitude test, his father-in-law suggested prosthetics. "Prosthetics appealed to me," Michael says. He spoke with two clinicians to learn more about the profession: a local O&P business owner, and the prosthetics department chair at the Ontario Crippled Children's Centre (now the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital), Toronto, Canada. Visiting the O&P firm, "I found everything fascinating," Michael says. However, the facility owner told him, "Don't go into this profession; you've got a college education; you can make a lot more money with a lot less effort in about a hundred other fields."
Undaunted, Michael next visited the children's hospital, expecting perhaps a 20-minute interview. Much to his amazement, Bill Sauter, CPO(c), spent about six hours with him, taking him through the facility and describing everything he did. "I was absolutely enamored of the range of challenges and the range of skills that it took to be a good clinician," Michael recalls. "And his enthusiasm and the fact he spent so much time with me made me think this field must be filled with people like him."
Several people had recommended Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center (NUPOC), Chicago, Illinois, to Michael "as one of the best places for a prosthetics education," and so Michael applied for the long-term prosthetic certificate program. He was turned down. However, his growing passion for the field fueled his determination. Recalling his day with Sauter, Michael says, "That was probably the single most important event that led me to persist in applying to Northwestern."
Michael applied again—and was rejected again. He kept reapplying. Finally his persistence paid off. "One day I got a call from the then-director of the program; he said that someone had dropped out, and the class was starting in 16 days. He told me, 'If you can pay your tuition in full and get up here in 16 days, we'll accept you into the program.' I had a quick discussion with my wife; we both agreed I should take the opportunity even though it would drain our savings. I moved to Chicago, stayed at the YMCA, and the rest, as they say, is history."
He adds, "I had two deficits: my degree was in psychology—there was a feeling at the time that psychology majors were pretty weird people—and I had no practical experience inprosthetics and orthotics. That's probably why other applicants were accepted ahead of me."
After completing NUPOC's prosthetics program in 1976, Michael looked for what today is called a residency. "I sent out about 50 resumés, and I think I got back exactly one response, so I took that position." Scheck & Siress, Oak Park, Illinois, turned out to be "the perfect beginning for me. I had a lot of opportunity to immerse myself in P&O; I needed a lot more hands-on experience, and I needed to learn more about non-Northwestern clinical approaches. I listened to folks, asked a lot of questions, and learned as much as I could." Michael was ABC-certified in prosthetics, and during his vacations, he began taking Northwestern's orthotics courses, which were then offered as a series. Because his position at Scheck & Siress involved far more prosthetics than orthotics, he failed the orthotics exam the first time due to lack of requisite experience. Once again, he didn't give up, earning his orthotics certification in 1981. "I ultimately became a CPO, but it took me a couple of hops," he says.
Michael served as Northwestern's assistant director of prosthetic education from 1978 to 1981 and earned a master's degree in technical education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
After another stint at Scheck & Siress, Michael went to work for North Shore Orthopedics, Highland Park, Illinois. "Scheck & Siress and North Shore Orthopedics were great experiences that took me from being a rank beginner to being a fairly good prosthetist," he says. "At North Shore, I had a great orthotic mentor, Julius Torrosy, CO, and the time to gain more experience in orthotics as well as prosthetics."
North Shore opened the door to a new skill set for Michael: the firm mainly outsourced prosthetic fabrication to a central fabrication facility. Central fabrication was then a fairly new concept, and Michael developed communication, assurance, and quality-control skills to use this resource effectively.
In 1985, another new chapter began for Michael as he became assistant clinical professor and director of the Department of Prosthetics and Orthotics at Duke University (Duke) Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.
Frank Clippinger, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Duke's Medical Center, had been urging Michael to interview for the position. Although Michael and Linda were happy in Chicago, the chance to leave icy winter weather and enjoy a warmer climate for a few days beckoned, so he accepted the interview invitation. "We were enthralled with the North Carolina area, the culture, the people, the atmosphere, the university, and the medical center—it was so much more than we ever expected," Michael remembers. Upon their return to Chicago, Michael and Linda encountered a wind-chill of 40 degrees below zero and a car that wouldn't start. The combination of what they found in North Carolina and the reminder of Chicago winters upon their return helped to tip the balance. Michael accepted the position, and he and Linda headed south.
"The medical complex includes practically every specialty center you can think of," Michael says. "I saw some very complicated and challenging cases—it was exhilarating." Perhaps not surprisingly, Michael's career as a prolific author also began at Duke.
John and Linda Michael grew up in Portage, Indiana, where they were high school sweethearts. Each had close-knit families. As the years went by, advancing age and ill health were taking their toll on their grandparents and great-grandparents, and the Michaels found themselves hopping planes because a beloved family member had become ill. An opportunity opened up at Ottobock, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and they decided to move back to the Midwest to be closer to their families. As Ottobock's director of professional and technical services, Michael gained valuable experience in a new dimension—the design, development, and distribution of innovative products. Especially noteworthy is his participation in development of the C-Leg®, the first commercially available microprocessor-controlled stance-and-swing prosthetic knee. Teaching the new technologies to experienced clinicians enhanced Michael's teaching skills. His work at Ottobock and with ISPO broadened his international perspective on O&P practice and education.
Consulting Practice Success
By this time in his career, most of the oldest generation in Michael's and Linda's families had passed away, but now their parents, aunts, and uncles were in declining health. With home beckoning them ever closer and their children David and Kathryn about to enter college, Michael decided to open his own consulting practice in Minneapolis, working primarily with clinicians, but also with patients, and assisting in research and product development. If the business took off, the Michaels could live wherever they chose. "We decided to not take any salary for a year, cut expenses, live like church mice, and see how it went," he says. When the practice began to thrive, they moved back to Portage, where all but three of their extended family members lived within a five-mile radius. Michael also had the freedom to serve as co-principal investigator on the Academy's Department of Education grants.
Thirty-four years after earning his prosthetics certificate at Northwestern, Michael's appointment in 2009 as associate director of NUPOC has brought his career full circle back to his alma mater. He helped manage the merger between NUPOC and the Northwestern University Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (NURERC) and their move into newly remodeled space, and is now focused on establishing Northwestern's master's degree in prosthetics-orthotics (MPO) curriculum and program.
O&P's Future: Michael's Perspective
"The bar will be raised across the field much more quickly than anyone would imagine possible," Michael says, including education, clinical practice, reimbursement justification, and technology. "The transition to master's-level education in the majority of the schools is going surprisingly well. The next generation of practitioners will not only have the same strong level of clinical education, but they also will be much more prepared to implement evidence-based practice and navigate technological change, including electronic documentation. Government regulation will increase, and profit margins will incrementally decrease."
Regarding technology, Michael believes traditional O&P care will still have an important place since many consumers prefer the comfortable, reliable devices they have used for years over the latest high-tech marvels.
"Tomorrow's practitioners will need excellent clinical and problem-solving skills, along with marketing expertise and a well-organized, efficient practice with rock-solid documentation and written policies and procedures," Michael says. However, he believes the incoming generation is well prepared and that "the national organizations are doing the best job they ever have. There are challenges ahead—but the field is well prepared to meet those challenges."
Lighting the Way
Michael's extraordinary career is a living example of the value of pursuing goals despite setbacks, seeking opportunities for professional growth rather than the "sure thing," maintaining a lifelong passion for learning, sharing time and expertise generously, and giving back to one's chosen profession.
English jurist and historian Frederic William Maitland (1850–1906) described these attributes well when he said, "The hunger and thirst for knowledge, the keen delight in the chase…the eager desire to get on with the work, the cheerful resolution to go back and begin again, the broad good sense, the unaffected modesty, the imperturbable temper, the gratitude for…help that was given—all these will remain in my memory though I cannot paint them for others."
Miki Fairley is a freelance writer based in southwest Colorado. She can be reached at