By Mindy Gee, Senior writer, 17, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies
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Dan Snelson, a certified orthotist at Shriners Hospitals for Children—Los Angeles holds leg braces he made for an 8-year-old girl, who has the birth defect spina bifida, to help her walk.

Photo by Victorino Martinez, 18, Daniel Murphy Catholic HS

Dan Snelson, a certified orthotist at Shriners Hospitals for Children—Los Angeles, described his job and career opportunities in the field, which involves making orthopedic braces to help people walk, improve their posture and strenghten weak body parts.

L.A. Youth: Can you describe your work? How does it differ from that of a prosthetist?
I’m a certified orthotist. I measure and fabricate braces for children. A prosthetist replaces a body part, and I take one that doesn’t work and make it better. For example, scoliosis, I improve the curvature [of the spine]. I make braces instead of casts. The braces help a weak or uncontrollable part of the body.

Can you describe the type of patients you normally work with? Are they usually suffering from birth defects or acquired diseases?
Most kids have a birth defect. Some trauma, but mostly birth defects. Most common is cerebral palsy. Another example is arthrogryposis, a disease that causes stiff joints, such as in knees and elbows, etc. The muscles aren’t really formed, they can’t straighten.

How did you enter this field? Why did you choose to be an orthotist instead of a prosthetist?
My father was one, and my grandfather before that. I’m certified in both. But in the hospital, I work as an orthotist. It’s very enjoyable.

Why do you enjoy your work?
Here, I get to help people. At the [Shriners] hospital, I don’t have to charge anyone for it. I had parents in tears after seeing their kid standing for the first time.

I’ve heard orthotics described as a very small field, which allows each orthotist to make a difference. Do you think that’s true?
You tell me [if we make a difference]. But I’ll tell you this. There are about 10,000 certified practitioners in the U.S. Of them, 3,000 are prothetists, 3,000 are orthotists, and 3,000 are both. It’s a small field.

There are a lot of teens who say they want to be doctors, but it’s not every day that you hear a teen say they want to be an orthotist. Why do you think that is?
Most people see doctors. You don’t see orthotists or prosthetists unless you need them. So most orthotists/prosthetists were either amputees or had family members as amputees, or family members in the business. Now at Northwestern University [in Chicago] or the University of Washington [in Seattle] or the University of Texas [Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas], they have formal classes. Some people who can’t get into physical therapy switch over. One of my classmates was a physical therapist and found out about it.

What do you think makes being an orthotist special and what do you get from this job that you can’t get from another?
I get to use my hands making things. I get to help other people, do business-type work, like budgets. It’s a little of everything. I get to work directly with kids, therapists and doctors. I can do what I want. Other orthotists have to charge, but I don’t. Shriners Hospital gives free medical care.

What are some negative aspects of the job, if there are any?
Dealing with the public. Sometimes you just don’t get along with them. Some come in with attitudes, like we owe them something because of their kid. Ninety-nine percent of people are thankful for us.

Do you think being an orthotist is a stressful job? How so?
It can be. I can’t guarantee how many jobs I get this month. It depends on doctor referrals. I might only get a couple this month but a lot more next month, but the doctor still expects me to do everything in the same amount of time. We work pretty quickly on most. If we do a mold today, we’ll do the fitting in two weeks.

How do some of these devices work?
It depends on what. For scoliosis, we help to control the back. Leg braces help legs hold the body up or protect a limb until it heals. Sometimes they protect from sores.

Would you like to know more about how to enter this field? The American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists Web site at offers listings of degree programs for orthotists, assistants and technicians and questions and answers about the field. California State University Dominguez Hills offers a four-year orthotics program. For more information, visit According to the American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association, the average salary for an orthotist is $56,000 without certification and $91,000 with certification.

What are you doing with the rest of your life?

The health care industry needs you! Health care offers a variety of jobs and careers, with great pay and flexible schedules. Whether you plan to start working right out of high school, or go to trade school, community college or a university, you can follow a path directly to a great future.

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Funded by a grant from The California Wellness Foundation.

Other stories by this writer …

SAT diary. From fatigue to hunger to time limits, Mindy tells what it’s like to take the test. (March – April 2007)

AIDS Q&A. Be aware of how to protect yourself. (Sept. 2006)

A censored school newspaper. Mindy was frustrated by how the administration at her school restricted what students could write. (May – June 2005)