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Rockwood Students Explore Opportunities in Prosthetics Through Project Interface

 Three Rockwood students - one on a computer - smile at the Hanger Clinic officeRising Lafayette High senior Ava Dean first developed an interest in prosthetics during a health class experiment in sixth grade.

The project involved a cup, straws and string.

“Now make a hand that can pick up a ball and drop it again,” Dean recalled. “I thought, ‘This could actually change people’s lives.’ It’s not just a health project for me anymore.”

A Rockwood student works on a prosthetics mold during her Project Interface summer internshipDean was one of three Rockwood students – along with Aima Salman from Marquette High and Gracie Steinmeyer from Rockwood Summit High – to gain hands-on, real-world experience working with prosthetics during a summer internship at Hanger Clinic in St. Louis through the Rockwood Partners in Education (PIE) Project Interface program.

Project Interface is a unique summer internship opportunity that places rising Rockwood seniors in a career area of interest, providing them with career exploration opportunities while allowing them to gain practical experience. Hanger Clinic, a first-time Project Interface partner, creates and fits customized solutions including prostheses, braces, supports, cranial helmets and other devices for patients.

Hanger was founded more than 160 years ago and has locations in 49 states and Washington, D.C.

A Rockwood student works on a prosthetics mold during her Project Interface summer internship“We’re always looking for a way to reach back to the community,” said Hanger Clinic Manager Kirk Pils. “To be able to do it with someone that may have an interest and spark in the field is really neat.”

“It was rejuvenating,” clinician Jerod Wexstten added. “It really helped remind me of the passion that started me down this path. You could see glimpses of that in all three of them, and it brought me back to where I was at the beginning of my career and how excited I was to learn these concepts.”

Pils, Wexstten and fabrication technician Alex Bailey helped guide the students through all aspects of the orthotics and prosthetics industry.

They started with creating a cast of a patient’s limb, then began to mold the prosthesis socket in plaster. They used the plaster mold to create a plastic “check” socket through a refinement process that includes cutting, grinding, sanding and polishing.

Then, they added a foot attachment, had a fitting appointment with the patient and used feedback from the appointment to create the final “definitive” socket.

A Rockwood student works on a prosthetics mold during her Project Interface summer internshipIn addition to being the students’ mentors, Wexstten and Bailey also served as their test patients. Wexstten has a below-knee amputation on his left leg and uses prosthetic technology himself. 

“We casted their legs, made their sockets and went through a fitting appointment with them,” Dean said. “Not only did they teach us what to look for, we got to do those things. It was the most hands-on experience you could get.”

Steinmeyer said her interest in prosthetics stems from an episode of the medical TV show Grey’s Anatomy in which the doctors work on a brain-to-computer interface to control a patient’s prosthetic limbs.

An active robotics team participant, Steinmeyer was especially interested in the fabrication aspect of Hanger’s business.

“One time, Jerod brought out this stand with seven or eight different types of knees and went over how the hydraulic ones worked, pneumonic ones, the computerized ones,” Steinmeyer said. “I could bend all of them and see their differences, and that was really good. This experience solidified that engineering is the career path that I want.”

Rockwood students and Hanger Clinic mentors smile at the Hanger Clinic officesLike Steinmeyer, Salman approached this internship opportunity from a biomedical engineering lens and wanted to see if prosthetics would be a good fit for her interests.

“I wanted to see if I was into it, and I definitely am,” Salman said. “I thought they would just have us shadow a little bit and learn things from afar, but we actually got to do the things that real prosthetists and clinicians do. I really enjoyed that part.”

Dean said she especially enjoyed interacting with the patients alongside the mentors: getting to ask the patients questions and hear their stories.

Now, she has a good problem. After experiencing this real-world outlet for her longstanding interest in prosthetics, she can’t decide which aspect of the career she wants to pursue.

“They say Project Interface helps with that decision but, honestly, it has just opened more options,” Dean said, with a laugh. “And that’s great in itself.”

If you or your business is interested in hosting a Project Interface intern, visit the PIE webpage or contact Dixie Baker or Karrie Lehman.