Recognize the Gravity of Your Work

In life there are many things we do not fully appreciate: the
camaraderie of good friends, the orange glow of a perfect sunset on the ocean
or a mountain lake, our first kiss, the touch of a child’s hand, and even
the shortness of life itself. While it is true most of us would like to think
we are sufficiently grateful for such moments, I would bet all of us, at one
point or another, has regretted not appreciating the moment to the degree we
should have.

A select group

It goes without saying that most of us will look back on our careers
with some measure of remorse for having not fully grasped the true measure of
what we have done. We could have been in advertising; we could have become
stock brokers, accountants or attorneys. All of these serve a purpose for
society to be sure, but there are few careers about which we can say, “I
helped piece someone’s life back together.”

Have you stopped to think about that … truly? Even if you are just
starting out, can you look ahead and understand the gravity of the career you
have chosen? For you grumpy old-timers out there, can you put down your sword
for just one moment and be grateful there are others like you in the profession
doing what you do, and instead of eyeing them as competitors and poking holes
in what they do, can you appreciate the fact you belong to a select group of
people lucky enough to sleep at night knowing the full breadth and depth of our
chosen path?

The value of patience

I was recently consulting with another prosthetist and we were on a
tight expedited fitting schedule because the location of the fitting was far
away. This necessitated the complete creation of the upper limb prosthesis in
one day. I was intent on moving quickly through the process and being as
efficient as possible. The patient, however, had his own schedule in mind and
proceeded to tell me every detail of not only how he lost part of his arm, but
the timeline of events that led up to that fateful day, the personality
profiles of the people present at the time of the accident, the business
dynamics going on at that moment, the conversations with the paramedics that
worked on him as well as the doctors, the effect of the loss of his arm on
those around him and even the exact inner workings of the machine that injured
him. After about 45 minutes I started shifting around in my seat, beginning to
panic at the thought of working late into the evening, knowing I had hundreds
of miles to travel to my next patient in addition to all of the stuff that
enters our minds when we are under the gun.


And then I saw a tear begin to form in his eye as he continued to
expound on his story and I knew that I was destined to hang on every word, that
I was going to let him speak for as long as he needed.I understood clearly this
was the most important part of our day together, and that the rest was simply
icing. I needed to hear his story in its entirety, and more importantly he
needed me to hear it. He had not worn a prosthesis for 9 years, and in his own
way he was administering self-therapy, shedding years of frustration and
denial, allowing us the ability to go forward together and make this work. Had
I simply brushed through his comments and waved away his desire to flush out
the details because of the schedule I needed to keep, I might have sacrificed
much of the trust that he needed to have to make this successful.

The psychological side

In the end, we had a great day together. I was tired, but thankful for
the time I spent with this man. How often do we get the chance to have a
“fireside chat” with people who have overcome incredible adversity
and are willing to share their experience? There is tremendous value there that
we again do not fully appreciate. How often do you enter the patient room with
the thought that “here comes another adventure, another opportunity to
learn, another chance to commune with a human on such a deep level?” I
will guess not very often, and it is because we are too often consumed with
what our work requires physically as opposed to psychologically.

We physically design and create prostheses or orthoses and then
hopefully teach the patient something about them. But when you start to think
that we are, in fact, a critical part of the interface between this individual
and their ability to move forward in his or her life, when the magnitude, the
gravity of that responsibility hits you where it counts, you begin to
understand the importance of listening, not just working with your hands. You
begin to appreciate the piece of the puzzle you represent, and that there is so
much more to what you do than carve plaster or alter ones and zeroes on the
laptop and hit send.

Even if all you are is a sounding board, you serve a huge purpose,
beyond that of a simple clinician. Reflect on that, absorb it and integrate it
into each and every patient meeting. It will do wonders for you when you are
looking back, which hopefully you do every night, or even every quiet moment
that avails itself, as opposed to waiting for just the right moment 20 or 30
years from now.

The power of discovery

It does not matter to me whether your patient or client is a long-time
wearer or has just experienced an amputation; whether he or she is interested
in acquiring independence in the performance of activities of daily living or
is an elite athlete, at one time or another they will need more than a
“craftsman,” more than a bucket for their arm or leg, or a timely
follow-up call in a week.

No matter how well adjusted they appear, at one point or another, and
perhaps numerous times in their lives, they will need you to truly empathize
with them and their situation. They will need you to step out of your box, both
clinically and cognitively, and rise above.

Whether it is the same interface design you have been using that you
were taught in school, whether it was the casting technique that has been in
existence since plaster bandage was invented, whether it is the same assessment
method you have employed for all your patients because that is the form you use
in your office, or whether you have decided patients do not need a call over
the weekend, step up to the plate and rethink who you are dealing with and
whether or not they deserve a different approach from what you have done for
the hundreds of patients who have come before.

Pull them aside and ask them, “so what do you think about all
this?” And when they ask you what you mean, let them have it. Ask them
about their overall view of prosthetics in general, their first thought when
they lost their limb and how far they feel they have come since then. Ask them
about how you can do better. You will ultimately find that not only will they
be pleasantly surprised that you care enough to ask, but that you both will
find the adventure in conversing truly memorable. You will then be well on your
way to discovering the true meaning – the gravity – of what it is you
do, and you ultimately discover the gift this profession offers to those in
need, one of which is you.

Randall Alley, BSc, CP, FAAOP, CFT

Randall Alley, BSc, CP, FAAOP, CFT is
chief executive officer of biodesigns inc. He is chair of the CAD/CAM Society
of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists, an international
consultant and lecturer, and a member of the O&P Business News
Practitioner Advisory Council. Alley can be e-mailed at

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