During the past 50 years, the research, education and knowledge-sharing that have taken place within the walls of Northwestern University Prosthetics-Orthotics Center (NUPOC) in Chicago have slowly trickled across the country as learned practitioners joined clinics and practices bringing new knowledge to their patients. Michael Brncick, MEd, CPO, current director for NUPOC, estimates that the program has graduated approximately 2,500 orthotists and prosthetists and 2,500 physicians, therapists and rehabilitation personnel through their various offerings.
O&P Business News spoke to four prominent figures of NUPOC’s past and present to find out what keeps the longest-surviving O&P program in the country going strong.
In 1952, the University of California, Los Angeles put O&P instruction on the map with the foundation of the first O&P education program in the country. Shortly thereafter in 1956, NYU also established an O&P school. Founded in 1958, NUPOC became the third O&P education program established in the United States and stands alone as the only program of the original three still in existence. Tom Karolewski, CP, prosthetics instructor and current interim prosthetics education director speculates that NUPOC was able to outlast the UCLA and NYU programs during a funding shortage because of NUPOC’s additional educational investment.
“We used to host and we still host outside courses for physicians, therapists, practitioners and for manufacturers,” he told O&P Business News. We have a lot of short term courses that we hold and that helps supplement the certificate program and that was one of the ways we were able to survive.”
Gunter Gehl, CP(E) and director of the prosthetics education program at NUPOC from 1977 to 1992 explained that the original three schools were funded with help from the Vocational Rehabilitation Administration and the selection of Northwestern University as the site of the third addition to O&P education was a matter of sheer geography.
“They needed a place in the center of the country and that’s why Northwestern was selected,” Gehl told O&P Business News.
But the program could not have been developed without Clinton L. Compere, MD, an orthopedic surgeon who formed the Prosthetics Research Laboratory at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) in 1956. He is also credited with the foundation of NUPOC which was and remains housed within the RIC.
Compere began the program through a subcommittee in orthotics and prosthetics of the Academy of Orthopedic Surgery, James Russ, CO(E) and director of the orthotics education program at NUPOC from 1968 to 1992 explained.
“A charge was given to the O&P industry to get their act together and the Academy of Orthopedic Surgery made it happen,” Russ told O&P Business News.
One year after the foundation of NUPOC in 1959, Compere hired H. Blair Hanger, CP as director of the prosthetics education program. Compere remained director of the collective O&P education program at this time. In 1962, Compere brought Jack Armold, PhD onto the faculty of NUPOC to take over his position as the director of the O&P program. After Armold left the position, Charles Fryer, MA took over. Gehl called him “the driving force for the whole program for 20 years.”
“Charles was a tough boss but demanded excellence from his instructors,” Gehl said. “A great credit should go to his leadership for the success of the program.”
The growing program welcomed Russ as the first director of the orthotics education program in 1966.
The orthotics program received a serious overhaul under the guidance of Russ. Earlier on in the O&P program’s development, Hanger consolidated the prosthetics program and Russ was about to revolutionize the way people viewed orthotic education in that same way.
“There was a certificate program at NYU and a certificate program at UCLA and I put those two certificate programs together into a certificate program at Northwestern but doing all three things—upper limb, lower limb and spinal orthotics,” Russ said. “So we did all three together in one composite program and that was also a certificate program.”
Collectively Russ and Hanger consolidated all of the basic science principles of the original three O&P education programs to create two comprehensive tracts—one in orthotics and one in prosthetics.
“That was the important thing that we did and that’s been disseminated throughout the world,” Russ told O&P Business News. “All the sciences were separate. It was a mish-mosh of short term courses and small certificate programs throughout the country.”
At the program’s inception it offered short-term courses for physicians, surgeons, therapists, nurses, prosthetists and orthotists. Following the development of the orthotics program, headed by Russ, the orthotics and prosthetics education programs ran parallel, Gehl explained.
“At that time we gave certificate courses, he said. “They lasted 6 months and they were in prosthetics and orthotics. We also had three labs going at that same time. We had short term courses whenever a new development happened in prosthetics and we brought people in from the industry to help us teach.”
In February 2007, NUPOC made a drastic change to their already successful program with the implementation of blended learning. A combination of distance and on-campus education, blended learning was adopted to meet the needs of students in the future.
“If you look at the universities across the United States, you’ll find that more and more universities are adopting distance education or what we call blended learning,” Karolewski explained. “We don’t use what we call a complete distance education. We call it blended because of the fact that we have the students do online courses at home and there’s a lot of interaction on the discussion boards with live conferencing with case studies and doing student conferencing to see how things are going.”
After 22 weeks of online learning, students attend NUPOC on campus for 10 weeks to complete their clinical requirements for certification. The certification program, which used to take 4½ months to complete has been lengthened to 8 months through the implementation of blended learning but because most of the coursework is completed online, NUPOC is able to run three courses each year instead of the usual two.
“I think it caters more to the future of education. I really see that distance education is going to be more the norm than the exception as we see it right now,” Karolewski said. “Brick and mortar schools are still there but you’re seeing more and more distance education . . . in the high pace society we have. It caters to what I call the student of the future.”
“We ran physician courses that were mainly for orthopedic resident doctors and for therapists and rehabilitation counselors so we were an extremely busy place,” Gehl said. “In relationship to the other schools, our strength was in practical hands-on teaching. That’s where we build up our reputation.”
May Cotterman, MEd, LPT, former instructor in orthotics, prosthetics and physician courses and current volunteer, played a large role in the development of physician courses at NUPOC. To meet the needs of busy attendees, Cotterman combined the upper and lower limb prosthetics courses and later also added the orthotics course to create a comprehensive physician’s course.
Cotterman also developed a course intended for physical therapists to meet their requests for additional lab time and encouraged the hiring of a full-time anatomy professor.
Fryer was the first NUPOC anatomy professor, Cotterman explained adding that he gave all of the initial lectures and prosection. Following his leave from teaching the course, the school hired a PhD candidate to teach the class. Upon graduation, NUPOC hired a full-time anatomy professor who incorporated dissection into the course.
“Being full-time on staff, I had the chance to audit all of the classes in O&P and that gave me an edge in my teaching,” Cotterman said.
These extra course offerings also help to offset some of the cost for running the O&P program. Course offerings for physicians, therapists and rehabilitation counselors were increased to help to meet that demand.
“Prosthetics and orthotics is a very expensive course to run because of the materials and the patient models,” Gehl said. “We had to pay the patients for coming in but they were absolutely necessary–that was the success of our course.”
As for the continued success of the program, all contributors agreed that the longevity of the faculty members has played a key role in the ongoing achievement of NUPOC.
“Over the years we’ve had pretty stable faculty. Mark [Edwards] . . . was here for 23 years. Gunter [Gehl] was here for 25 years. Blair Hanger,” Karolewski said. “The fact that our faculty is stable helps to build a rapport.”
Cotterman echoed Karolewski’s thoughts adding that the devoted faculty were genuinely interested and invested in teaching the basics and turning out the best students possible.
“I worked with Blair, Jim and Gunter and I found them all really committed,” Cotterman said. “They were very involved with the students and were concerned about what type of education they were getting. You have to like your students and you have to like what you’re doing.”
Additionally, students attending the NUPOC program are offered the supplementary educational resources provided through the affiliation the school has with the RIC.
“[The students] are able to see the research and some of the projects that the engineering students are working on,” Karolewski said.
Russ credits the evolvement of the program for its continued success.
“They are actually involved with the RIC. The professors are involved clinically and moving on toward a master’s program,” Russ said. “The natural evolution of the program has kept it alive.”
Keeping students coming back might be the most important aspect involved with keeping an educational program alive, but the happiness of the faculty is just as important to keep the overall tone of the experience a positive one.
“The students were extremely successful after they left the school,” Gehl said attributing the program’s success to ongoing teaching excellence. “We had a reunion not too long ago and it was so gratifying to see all the students that you were teaching through the years. They are all successful business people now. That is the main thing that I really like to see due to our efforts.”— by Jennifer Hoydicz
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