The Orientation of a Homing Pigeon

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By Chelan M. Pedrow
Chelan and her father at the Georgia Tech bookstore
Chelan and her father at the Georgia Tech bookstore

Ten of us awkwardly shuffle into Georgia Tech's fabrication workshop. Each chooses an area of workspace and a toolbox, and on command we open our new cases. The tools feel important but foreign. I am like a toddler clumsily tearing into an expensive present. As our instructor guides our inventory of the case's contents, we struggle to locate the scarpa knife, a sureform, and china markers. After holding up the knuckle buster, the instructor informs the class to expect to lose "a little bark" over the coming months of the program and in subsequent career years-then he chuckles.

Actually, I felt I had already shed personal bark. Only four days earlier, my father and I, carrying six pieces of luggage, two laptops, and a mop handle, had boarded a plane destined for Atlanta, Georgia, where this self-proclaimed "homing pigeon" would kick-start her new life. I dreamed of rising on time to the pleasant whispers of my alarm clock, southern cuisine leaving no trace on my waistline, and forever fabricating flawless limbs. However, my optimism was hammered even before departing the Spokane, Washington, airport as the Code-Orange Terrorist Alert blared over the loudspeakers condemning all liquids in the plane cabin. Repacking every suitcase there on the terminal floor, so as to meet the new federal restrictions, pushed my already over-stuffed luggage dangerously close to the hefty over-weight fine. In Atlanta our flight finally landed, sandwiched between two raging thunderstorms as the taxiing plane flung water as high as the passenger windows. Over the following days I matured quickly as I met the piranhas of the used-car world, followed by the AAA tow-truck driver when my newly purchased car broke down three days later.

Sacrifice, Opportunity

In reality, each student has left the familiar and all we hold dear, to embark on this new life demanding a significant degree of financial sacrifice. Each has given up the "bark" of time, money, careers, family, and friends for a chance to pioneer this fulfilling career. It's a small field poised to make a deep impact in the lives of many in the coming years through innovative design, fabrication, research, and marketing, as well as politically and philanthropically.

The MSPO program at Georgia Tech, having recognized this, has established itself as diverse and unique, offering its students clinical experience in the hospital operating room, as well as the fabrication lab. A major strength is the flexibility of the curriculum allowing a student to pursue specialty interests within the field. It is under this vision that my classmates and I find the willingness and zeal to push forward, don crisp white lab coats, and take the practitioner's oath: "...to recognize my weaknesses and strengths and strive to develop those qualities that will earn the respect of my patients, my colleagues, my family, and myself."

However, during times of solitude I struggle with the pain of lost bark, and the required sacrifice suddenly doesn't seem worth the future success. On one such occasion while waiting for class to begin, I spied a veteran in a wheelchair in the candle section of a VA gift shop; his leg had been amputated and the shrapnel wounds were painfully noticeable. He was lost in the overwhelming scents of the displayed candles. As he held to his nose a small box containing a decorative candle meant only as a wedding-cake topper, I could sense his frustration and stepped up to show him the scented ones. He looked at me with cloudy eyes that could no longer navigate and apologized for needing assistance, but smiled with pleasure as he sniffed strawberry fields from the deep red candle I had chosen.

As I drive my now repaired little green car down the eight-lane freeway to Atlanta, I roll down the windows and let the thick humidity do its utmost damage to my locks. The green forests whiz by as my radio blares the music of Alan Jackson. The potential opportunities in the O&P field excite me, but it is the raw need I saw in the eyes of the veteran that will inspire and keep this homing pigeon grounded for the next two years "way down yonder on the Chattahoochee" ... I turn up the tuner as I cross over that very same meandering river.

Chelan Pedrow is a graduate student in the MSPO Program at the School of Applied Physiology at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. She will be sharing her experiences through articles in The O&P EDGE throughout her two-year program, internship, certification, and as she begins her professional career.