The Mechanics of Healing

It is said that you never forget how to ride a bike. For Dick Polen, it's not so much about forgetting, but about the challenges of an injury. In 2005, Polen slipped and fell in a bath tub. His accident led to an infected bone that started with a diabetic foot ulcer. "I was given two choices: let gangrene set in or amputate. There really wasn't a choice," said Polen. His left leg was amputated below the knee. He completed five weeks of rehabilitation for his new prosthetic leg but felt like he needed something more: "I learned how to get around with my prosthesis and get better balance, but I wanted to learn how to keep my balance."

That's when Polen learned about the Rehabilitation and Wellness Clinics at Nazareth College. His therapy is part of a unique collaboration between Nazareth's Physical Therapy Department and Rochester Institute of Technology's (RIT) Kate Gleason College of Engineering. RIT engineering students are given an opportunity to complete a project from start to finish by designing therapeutic equipment to meet the needs of the clients of Nazareth's physical therapy clinics.

"We're doing some really cool stuff," said J.J. Mowder-Tinney, assistant professor of physical therapy and director of clinical education at Nazareth. "The engineering students are creating equipment that doesn't exist anywhere else ... When I meet with them to talk about what I want, I'm looking for anything that will benefit the patient."

Dick Polen has used two of the most recent projects completed by RIT's class of 2008: the balance training bicycle and the portable obstacle course. He appreciates the opportunity to use new equipment for his therapy. "I enjoy trying different techniques and I am impressed by the fact that students from Nazareth and RIT are working together," said Polen.

Elizabeth DeBartolo, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at RIT, couldn't agree more: "These types of projects couldn't take place without the collaboration between RIT and Nazareth. RIT doesn't have a resource like Nazareth's physical therapy clinic that provides opportunities for students to work with clients with a variety of different needs, and Nazareth doesn't have engineering students to design rehabilitation devices. It just makes sense to work together so that everybody can benefit."

"It takes extra time and a lot of follow-up to work on projects like these," said Mowder-Tinney. "But no one is doing the kind of community activities we do." DeBartolo adds, "Sometimes it doesn't hit home [with the engineering students] until they deliver the final product and see the client using it ... they get a certain satisfaction when they realize that they are working on something that is going to change someone's life."

Someone like Dick Polen. "When I started going to Nazareth's clinic I went because I thought they needed people to work with and it got me motivated just to get out ... Now, two years later, it has built my confidence and I feel that by being there I am able to help the students learn, and that feels good ... they keep me on my toes."