Living Outside the Box: Kaia Halvorson, CPO, LPO

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By Jodi Mills

Gracious and affable, Kaia Halvorson, CPO, LPO, speaks with enthusiasm when discussing the future of O&P. Her mindset is such that one would think nothing is impossible. With a positive, determined focus, Halvorson sees endless potential and opportunity in this ever-changing field.

Having celebrated her one-year anniversary as national director of orthotics for Hanger Orthopedic Group Inc., Bethesda, Maryland, in July 2004, Halvorson looks forward to the challenges that the next couple of years will bring. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and her motto is to "look outside the box. Opportunities are everywhere if you are creative."

Halvorson's life has been one filled with amazing experiences. She thoroughly enjoys life with all it has to offer. Whether that is growing up as the daughter of a Lutheran minister in Anchorage, Alaska, or devoting herself to the rigors of competitive figure skating, you can be certain that she is enjoying each moment to the fullest. Her childhood was spent fishing on the Kenai River and in Homer. After learning to ice skate, she began competing, contending with the likes of Tonya Harding when she was just a girl from Portland, Oregon.

From Figure Skating to O&P

As Halvorson's college years approached, she shifted her focus from a possible career as a figure skater, with the potential to become an instructor or coach, to the world of O&P. One of the motivating reasons for this choice is a memory she has of a friend who valiantly won a fight with cancer and ultimately became an above-knee amputee. Eight-year-old Kaia was amazed at her friend's bravery and how she never allowed the loss of her leg to hamper her zest for life. Having two aunts that dealt with multiple sclerosis and the challenges of staying active and having fulfilling lives was also a source of inspiration. Immersing herself in the field of O&P was a way that she could use her creativity to make a difference in people's lives.

Obstacles along the way have been met with determination and optimism. During her first year of prosthetics and orthotics at the University of Washington, her father died from cancer. The compassion and professionalism of the people that cared for her father left a lasting impression. Instead of allowing her grief to overwhelm her, she used the experience as a constant reminder to "look at the world through a different lens." She became intent upon giving her patients the same outstanding care and compassion that her father received.

Halvorson completed her education in the Orthotics and Prosthetics Program of the University of Washington, receiving her bachelor of science degree. An interview with Jeff Miller of Boston Brace, Avon, Massachusetts, led her to venture from one coast to the other. "The fun began in Boston," says Halvorson. "My East Coast experience at Boston Children's Hospital reinforced the age-old adage that if you can treat pediatric patients, you can treat anyone." From July 1993 to December of 1996, Halvorson gained much experience in Boston as well as at the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Children's Hospital and United Prosthetics Inc., Boston, owned and operated since 1914 by the Martino family. Halvorson will tell you that it was there that she learned from a literal museum of education and prostheses. It was the icing on her East Coast cake!

The West Coast then beckoned her to return. As interesting and challenging as pediatrics was, the time she would next spend at Harborview Medical Center, Seattle, Washington, played a close second, if not equal. Her responsibilities as director of orthotics at the level one trauma hospital included serving as clinical orthotic coordinator for the center that serviced Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington; staff training; development of orthotic training materials with therapists; and development and direction of on-call staffing for a hospital providing 24/7 care 365 days a year.

Teaching Is Her Passion

Her ever-growing list of accomplishments includes becoming a faculty member at the University of Washington in December 1996. The staff and curriculum is one she feels very strongly about supporting, and she intends to continue this relationship throughout her career. Seattle Systems Inc., Poulsbo, Washington, offered her a chance to become the company's clinical consultant. Halvorson thus gained invaluable experience in the engineering, manufacturing, and business components of O&P. Her recommendation is that every O&P professional take some time to explore these other sides of the profession. The experience she gained and the contacts she made are what have enabled her to grow into her current position with Hanger, she says.

The quest to educate the world--yes, the world--as to its view of orthotics and prosthetics is one Halvorson takes very seriously. Teaching is her passion, and her current position allows her to concentrate her efforts within O&P as well as reaching patients, allied health professionals, physicians, and payers. Occupational therapists and case managers can also benefit from her knowledge and expertise. Hanger's educational program, utilizing Halvorson's expertise, offers seminars to educate these groups on new components and techniques. Guidance is also offered on reimbursement recommendations. The goal is to enhance current relationships and better serve patients.

Halvorson admires the team approach that practitioners and staff at Hanger embrace. They welcome new technology and design, knowing that it will further the profession of O&P. Case in point is the development of the Insignia technology, an integral component in improving patient care. Halvorson reveals that it touches every facet of their business. "Insignia's three-dimensional laser scanner provides the patient an alternative to plaster casting," says Halvorson. "We utilize this technology not only for fabrication but also for documentation." Objective data documenting patient outcomes is a benefit that also aids in providing reimbursement justification.

Hanger has realized that association with DME cannot rule its destiny and Halvorson agrees. The company is working to build its profession around complete patient care, education, and professionalism within the medical community, she notes.

O&P's Future: Halvorson's View

What does Halvorson see in the future for O&P? Stepping up to the plate and taking charge of justifying and documenting treatment protocols and procedures is a start. "This cannot be left to decision-makers that have no interest in furthering the O&P industry," emphasizes Halvorson. "It will be up to all of us to set the bar and define the clinical standards of treatment." Developing new technologies will also play a substantial role in O&P industry progress, she believes. Halverson comments, "The medical community grows leaps and bounds each year by embracing technology. We, as O&P providers, need to match their enthusiasm in order to keep pace and offer our patients the best continuum of care available."

Computerized devices now being used are opening up avenues that haven't been thought of before, such as creating burn masks for trauma patients and even going into the plastic surgery realm. Technology is just tapping the surface on what it can do for O&P, and Halvorson plans on being involved in this process.

Balancing Career and Life

Traveling extensively is a big part of Halvorson's life in her position at Hanger. Making Seattle her home base allows her to keep in touch with her family and friends. Time spent at home is precious, given the amount of time she is away. Her mom, brother, and sister all live in the area. The patience and understanding displayed by long-time companion, Joseph Busch, eases Halvorson's transition from life on the road to being at home.

Sanity is a valuable commodity in today's world. Living about a mile from the Puget Sound allows Halvorson to spend lunch hours running on the beach regaining her sanity. It's a time she allows herself to clear her head, put the trials and tribulations of everyday life aside, and reflect on her fortune, family, and friends. Cooking and catering is a long-standing passion that has led her to begin documenting personal recipes to create a cookbook of favorites. Classical music, off-Broadway shows, skiing, and an annual escape to Mexico all rank among things Halvorson relishes in her downtime.

Balancing such a demanding career with day-to-day life would be daunting for the average person. Halvorson makes it all seem like a walk in the park. Spending the last year getting a good foothold on her role at Hanger, getting to know everyone, and acquiring an understanding of all the regimes involved has kept her on the go.

Teaching is also something she insists will never go away for her. She firmly believes that part of being a good educator is being a good clinician. She'd like to get back into the patient care side again, once the program at Hanger is more established. In the meantime, you can rest assured that this leader in the O&P industry will continue to excel at all she does. Taking her own advice, Halvorson recommends, "Don't lose sight of why you got into this field in the beginning: patient care. Ultimately we are in this for the patients, and if we follow our values of clinical excellence and unsurpassed patient care, our businesses will flourish."

Continue to look outside the box for new opportunities to advance O&P. Exciting times are ahead for this industry. Join Kaia Halverson in being part of every moment.