By David Chilton
Special to The Toronto Sun
Elizabeth Harris graduated from the University of Toronto in 1980 with a degree in biology and psychology. She bought a motorcycle, travelled and worked as a bartender, but admits she was really young and didn't have any idea about a career.
Then she found some courses sponsored by Manpower -- now Human Resources Development Canada -- which introduced women to non-traditional occupations. So she bid bartending goodbye and enrolled in the two-month federal program. She learned about prosthetics from one of the course's guest speakers.
"He suggested robotics, and somewhere in the depths of my brain I stuck a robot and a person together and came up with artificial limbs," Harris says. "I had never heard the word "prosthetics" before. I was really quite gripped by it."
Elizabeth Harris, a certified prosthetist at Sunnybrook Hospital, and co-ordinator of prosthetic services at both Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre, discovered the discipline while on a federal government course on non-traditional occupations for women. "I had never heard the word "prosthetics" before -- I was really quite gripped by it." (Photo, Doug Nicholson)
She also remembered that prosthetics was one of careers that arose as a good fit on a recent career inventory test.
So, in 1986, one day before applications to the orthotics and prosthetics program at Toronto's George Brown College closed, Harris put her name forward for enrolment in a tough program that graduates very few students to work in a little known health-care specialty.
The two-year program at George Brown is based at Sunnybrook Hospital, and is the only one of its kind in Ontario. It offers two streams: clinical, at a cost of $4,246 a year, and technical, for $4,601.
The clinical stream, which Harris entered, requires a relevant science degree, an entrance exam and two three-person panel interviews. Dan Blocka, co-ordinator of the program, says usually 70 to 80 people apply for each of the eight spots in that stream.
Blocka himself pursued engineering studies at the University of Toronto, has a degree in kinesiology from the University of Guelph, and is a 1983 graduate of the George Brown clinical stream. He says its curriculum specializes in study of anatomy, human movement and so on, occupying 30% of a student's time. The other 70% is spent learning measurement, casting moulds, how devices fit and function and problem solving.
The technical stream accepts more students -- 28 to 30 on average -- but gaining admission is still no walk in the park, since there are about five applicants for every spot. Technical stream students need at least a high school diploma, Blocka says, and he estimates that half of them have some other educational background as well.
It's the technicians who build the limbs and other devices. "They work at the fabrication level," Blocka says. "(These students) are more interested in the hands on and a little less interested in the academics."
Once the clinician and technician students have finished their respective George Brown studies, they must complete a two-year paid internship that they have to find themselves, and specialize in either orthotics (working with body and limb braces and splints) or prosthetics (working with artificial limbs) before writing certification exams that "go on for days," Harris says.
She currently works as a certified prosthetist at Sunnybrook Hospital, and is co-ordinator of prosthetic services at both Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre.
Leslie Knight, a second-year clinical-stream student at George Brown, intends to do both. She says she'll pursue an orthotics internship first, followed by prosthetics, then open her own clinic.
Knight's decision to become an orthotist and prosthetist was prompted by personal interest and experience.
"I was always interested in the body and movement," says Knight, who graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 2001 with a kinesiology degree.
A presentation at Western helped sell her on the idea of a career as an orthotist and prosthetist, as did an interest she developed while having to wear foot orthotics as a child.
Where Knight opens her clinic will determine her income, but Blocka suggests a private clinician can eventually earn about $100,000 a year.
Clinicians working in public clinics or hospitals less, about $35,000 to $40,000 a year to start, Blocka says. Once they're fully certified, that can rise to $50,000 or more a year.
Technicians earn a bit less to start, beginning at $30,000 to $36,000, but after about two years can expect to make $40,000 to $45,000, Blocka says.
(Reach freelancer David Chilton at firstname.lastname@example.org
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