Dan Blocka, BSc(Hons), CO(c), FCBC: P&O Global Ambassador

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Dan Blocka, BSc(Hons), CO(c), FCBC, immediate past president of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (ISPO), is a man on fire, a visionary who can transform an idea into a practical reality. His mission: to help advance prosthetics and orthotics schools and education programs worldwide and to make them sustainable for the next generation and beyond.

Blocka and wife Francy Pillo-Blocka in 2005. Photographs courtesy of Dan Blocka.

Blocka also has played a key role in advancing the P&O profession in Canada, having served as a professor, coordinator, and a guiding light of the P&O educational programs at George Brown College (George Brown), Toronto, Ontario, for more than a quarter century. The practitioner program at George Brown is one of four in Canada, and the college also boasts the only technician training program in the country.

Blocka's passion for education was ignited early in his career. After graduating in 1981 from the University of Guelph, Ontario, with a bachelor of science honors degree in kinesiology, a serendipitous series of events led him to his true calling. The university had a connection with the new P&O practitioner program at George Brown, and one of his professors thought it would be a perfect fit for him, Blocka says. His interest was further heightened upon hearing a presentation by one of the program's leaders at the time, bioengineer Geoff Fernie, PhD, MIMechE, CEng, PEng.

A 2004 ISPO Category II exam candidate describes and comments on the frontal plane alignment of a prosthesis the candidate fit in Lome, Togo.

"I wanted to combine my interest in technology, engineering, and human movement in a field that would help people," Blocka says. I was very attracted to the idea of a device that could help people overcome movement disability." Accompanying his mother's acquaintance on an appointment to a Toronto P&O clinic also inspired him to pursue a career in P&O. "I was intrigued; I could see that this was a unique profession."

Blocka entered the program at George Brown, graduating in 1983. He completed his residency and earned his certification as an orthotist from the Canadian Board for Certification of Prosthetists and Orthotists (CBCPO) in 1985.

Blocka was in the third graduating class of the practitioner program, which was established in 1979 and followed the earlier technician program that began in 1970. "Under the old rules, technicians could eventually become certified practitioners, but those rules changed in 1985; now only graduates of an accredited practitioner program can become certified," Blocka says. He was a graduate of the first cohort of students who entered Canadian O&P under the new educational requirement.

While Blocka entered the field to be involved in daily patient care, the idea of educating future practitioners lured him back to George Brown. "My mentors encouraged me to take the position at George Brown in 1986, three years after I graduated," Blocka recalls. "I thought I'd be there for five years; that was my commitment." The five years have now stretched to 26 and counting. "I've had great support from my superiors; they've always been behind me and let me go in the direction I felt was best. I have to give the college a huge amount of credit for the support I've received…. My colleagues and I were given the freedom to move the program in the direction we needed to go."

Blocka (ISPO) and Thierry LeBorgne (ICRC) question an exam candidate during the ISPO Category II prosthetics examination during a 2006 Sudan trip.

Going International

Blocka's passion for education went international when he became involved in ISPO in 1998, joining a multidisciplinary group of rehabilitation professionals with vision and dedication. As chair of ISPO's Education Committee from 2004–2007 and as current assistant chair, he has been involved in the development of educational standards and evaluative protocols of ISPO for the full professional prosthetist/orthotist (Category I) and orthopedic technologist (Category II) levels and has participated in more than 30 evaluations of P&O educational training programs around the world. He also currently serves as chair of the USAID-ISPO Steering Committee.

In cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners, ISPO has been the driving force in establishing international P&O education standards since the early 1990s. Before the early 2000s, there were only a handful of Category II schools and programs in developing nations to meet the vast needs of populations with disabilities. (Category I P&O programs are university-level programs, mainly located in industrialized countries.) Since then, despite armed conflicts and difficult economic times, Category II P&O programs have been proliferating worldwide. "Somewhere around 2003, 2004, things really took off," Blocka says. Partnerships with other international aid organizations, such as WHO, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Cambodia Trust in the United Kingdom, the Nippon Foundation in Japan, and others have been enormous synergizing forces, he explains.

However, a critical piece in establishing a successful, sustainable P&O training program is bringing the country's government into the process. "If you don't engage governments and their agencies, it isn't going to happen," Blocka points out. "That's one of ISPO's strategies; if we go into a country to support the development of the profession, we have to engage the stakeholders or the graduates won't gain support and recognition.

Yeongchi Wu and Blocka present the Center for International Rehabilitation (CIR) Yeongchi Wu International Educational Award to Ping Yang, a prosthetist/orthotist at China Rehabilitation Center, Beijing, for the best paper presented by a student or a practitioner from a low-income country at the 13th ISPO World Congress, Leipzig, Germany, in 2010.

"For whatever reason, government policies in some countries and regimes have shifted. There seems to be more awareness of persons with disabilities and more willingness to recognize and address their needs. "For instance, the executive director of the Cambodia Trust, Carson Harte, is involved with the possible development of a P&O school in Burma [Myanmar]. Before that, there were some services being provided, but no comprehensive P&O training. So suddenly, opportunity comes and a door opens. Now maybe in five or ten years we'll be talking about the new P&O professionals in Burma who are taking the lead in their profession and are recognized in their country."

Blocka cites another opportunity in an unlikely location. Sri Lanka, which suffered a lengthy civil war that ended in 2009, is now home to the ISPO Category II Sri Lanka School of Prosthetics and Orthotics (SLSPO), Ragama, established in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, the Nippon Foundation, and the Cambodia Trust. "SLSPO started in 2004 from a neglected orthopedic workshop in a small Sri Lanka hospital," the Nippon Foundation's website explains. "It transformed into a world-class training institution with national and international recognition as of January 2010."

George Brown College faculty from the P&O postgraduate practitioner program, June, 2011. From left: Jennifer Wright, Amy Richardson, Kathleen Orsi, RJ Clements, Sharon Carr, Shane Glasford, Blocka, Krista Holdsworth, Laurie Vanderhaeghe, Ken Roczniak, and Brad Van Lenthe.

Blocka says, "If you had told me ten years ago that Sri Lanka would have a P&O school, I would have said, 'Whoa!'"

Two or three universities in the China mainland are coming up for ISPO evaluations this year where there were none before, Blocka continues. (Author's note: The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom, Kowloon, has a Category I program.) "Awareness of disability has become higher, perhaps because of such events as the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing," he says.

ISPO-recognized schools and programs have more than doubled since the early 2000s, according to Blocka. "Seeing that expansion, being involved in it, and helping it happen has been, I think, the number one highlight of my career. Seeing this expansion continue and programs become sustainable and ready to be handed on to the next generation are my current challenges." (Author's note: For more information about ISPO, international education standards, and the consultation and evaluation processes, visit www.ispoint.org)

P&O at Home and Abroad

Blocka and Sandy Sexton, current project manager of the USAID ISPO grant and former director of the Strathclyde University, Glasgow, Scotland, P&O program, attend the 2007 graduation ceremony of Tumaini University, Iringa, Tanzania, and the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical College (KCMCo), Moshi Town, Kilimanjaro Region,Tanzania.

Coordinating his international ISPO work with his academic responsibilities at George Brown "has been a balancing act," Blocka says. He was given a partial leave of absence during his ISPO presidency. "My superiors at George Brown have always been advocates of being involved professionally, so they have been very supportive as long as our program doesn't suffer. We have a great team, so I have been able to shift classes around and haven't had to be there every moment."

Blocka has clearly been successful at this balancing act, as the program has continued to thrive. The college's practitioner and technical programs have far more applicants than spaces available. "Every year, the quality of applicants gets better," Blocka adds. The practitioner program draws about 100 applicants for eight positions. The technical program attracts 170–180 applicants for 30 positions.

The increase in applicants bodes well as research indicates that there may be a need for even more expansion of the program to meet future demands for qualified practitioners. Blocka and some colleagues have been conducting five-year demographic studies showing a trend toward a growing older population requiring more P&O services, which they plan to present at the Canadian Association for Prosthetics and Orthotics (CAPO) National Conference in August in Victoria, British Columbia. "This trend shows that we may need to increase enrollment and extend the quality of the programs." The challenges Blocka sees facing P&O programs in Canada likely resonate in the United States as well: finding ways to keep the quality of educational content high while keeping costs down. "There are innovative strategies out there we can capture and use cooperatively between schools," he says. "We need to…utilize some of the new techniques and technologies; that's true for continuing education also." This challenge brings a corollary conundrum, Blocka points out: figuring out what high-tech components to bring in, how they can be made affordable, and what high-end devices and componentry are better used in residencies and in the development of post-graduate continuing education.

"We try to provide our students with the skill sets that enable them to create excellent solutions for their clients," he continues. Because technology changes rapidly, the program's focus is not so much on the technology itself, but on how to assess the patient's needs and apply the most appropriate technology for that individual and how to work with other healthcare professionals to optimize that technology, Blocka explains. New graduates need to have relationship skills in their toolbox. They need to know how to really listen to their patients, basing treatment plans on the needs of the patient and the environment and circumstances in which he or she will be using the prosthesis or orthosis in order to achieve a successful solution.

Peer Recognition

Blocka's professional peers have honored his contributions to his chosen field. CAPO awarded him with a Life Membership for his leadership and dedication to the field of P&O in August 2010, and CBCPO recognized him in 1996 with a Life Fellowship for his outstanding contributions to the profession. He was also a Premier Award nominee in 2004 and 2006, which honors outstanding graduates of Ontario's college educational system. In March 2011, Blocka was appointed to the Cambodia Trust board of directors.

In other professional activities, Blocka has been president and owner of Clinical Orthotic Consultants (COC), a large clinical facility in the Toronto area, since 1988. He also squeezed in time to serve as a lecturer from 1985–2004 in the School of Human Biology at his alma mater and serves as a board member of the ErinoakKids Foundation, which is the fundraising entity for the ErinoakKids Centre for Treatment and Development, the largest children's treatment center in Ontario.

"I love the profession," he says. "It's been a blessing; it's brought so much to my life. My international community of friends is quite amazing…. I've really been driven by the profession and its needs, and my students have been an inspiration also—and that's really made it easy."

Miki Fairley is a freelance writer based in southwest Colorado. She can be reached at

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