Last fall, a club at Joliet Junior College held a doll and stuffed animal drive – but the goal was not to simply donate these 200 collected items to kids in need.
Instead, the JJC Orthotics and Prosthetics Technology Student Association was going to create orthotic and prosthetic devices for these dolls and animals and then pair them with a child who has the same device.
Alisha Brennon, professor of prosthetic technology at Joliet Junior College and a 2017 graduate of the program, was inspired by children like them when she was a certified prosthetic technician at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab from 2018 to 2021.
“A couple of times I was asked to make devices for the dolls because the kids did not want to wear their devices; they were embarrassed,” Brennon said.
Brennon returned to JJC in 2021 as a professor in the orthotics and prosthetics technology program after Mike Brncick, the program’s founder, retired and OPT professor Desmond Masterton took charge of the program. Brennon realized she was ready to teach instead of just fabricating when she saw the position was available.
“JJC has been a sense of home for me,” Brennon said. “I’ve always felt comfortable there and just always felt that’s where I’m supposed to be, even when I was a student.”
Brennon said it’s a “goosebumps” feeling to make someone’s day and life better. And she wants her students to have the same experience.
According to JCC, only seven community colleges in the United States have OPT programs. JJC’s program is accredited by the National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.
Brennon recalled her 2018 trip to Bolivia to work with Steve Morel of the Filadelfia Center for Prosthetics, the first student to ever do so, according to JJC.
“Bolivia was a game-changing experience for me,” Brennon said. “I knew this was exactly where I wanted to be.”
Morel had shared with the students in Brncick’s class about how his worked helped people in Bolivia who could not afford prostheses.
“It’s just a feeling that I don’t think I’ll ever experience again,” Brennon said. “You know you are 100% changing a person’s life just by taking the time to make something for them.”
Brennon said she met people in Bolivia who traveled several hours by moped just to receive a device she’d made. Brennon recalled one patient who lost her leg to flesh-eating bacteria.
“She had never been able to walk without crutches and the prosthesis she arrived to the clinic with was being held together by duct tape,” Brennon said in a JCC news release. “I had brought some fabric down to see if maybe designs on the prostheses would be something that the patients would enjoy. She chose one of my fabrics and when we finally fit her with her final prosthesis, she looked at me and said that she finally has a pretty leg.”
At JJC, Brennon was also part of a team that helped fit a two-pawed puppy with a set of prosthetics, too.
Brennon said orthotics and prosthetics is a growing industry and she’s trying to expand the program to fit that growth, she said. One start is by offering a summer course this year.
Where does Brennon get her drive? From her own desire for healing.
Brennon and her partner were at the Indiana State Fair in 2011 when a concert stage collapsed. Brennon’s partner was killed; Brennon’s skull was partially crushed. Almost 60 people were injured and seven died and Brennon said she knew she “had to give back somehow.”
She almost enrolled in JJC’s radiologic technology program when she learned about the OPT program. And a career didn’t “get any more hands-on involved” than this, she said.
“I don’t think you get into orthotics and prosthetics for any reason other than you want to help people,” Brennon said.