Ronald F. Altman CPO(E): A Lifetime of Making a World of Difference

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By Jodi Mills
Ronald Altman, center, with October 2005 CSPO graduating class.
Ronald Altman, center, with October 2005 CSPO graduating class.

For some, it can take a lifetime to discover what direction to take, which path to pursue.  For others, circumstances beyond themselves set wheels in motion and before they can ask why or how, life takes them somewhere they never may have imagined. Ronald F. Altman CPO(E) has experienced the latter.

Retired from private practice, his primary focus now is overseeing and providing guidance for the clinical placement students of the Cambodia School of Prosthetics and Orthotics (CSPO) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A world away from his career as a practitioner in the US, Altman truly has immersed himself in the culture of Cambodia and its people. He describes his journey as "each twist and turn, each up and down cycle along the way, was designed to bring me to where I am now."

Throughout his illustrious career in O&P, Altman often has worked with those less fortunate. He participated with Alan Finnieston, CPO, in a prosthetic orthotic clinic Finnieston established in Nassau in the Bahamas.  In the early 1970s he was a Peace Corps volunteer. This led Altman to help establish O&P services in the South Pacific and the Fiji Islands. Some time passed, and then Mel Stills, CO, rekindled Altman's interest in the developing world, leading Altman to perform evaluations for USAID in Africa and South East Asia and evaluating O&P programs throughout the Third World. As retirement from the field of O&P approached, a well-deserved break was warranted, but only a short one.

Not wanting her dad to let moss grow under his feet, Altman's daughter Elizabeth Mansfield piqued his interest with information about a teaching position in Cambodia at CSPO.  Mansfield has been involved in fundraising for "Adopt-a-Minefield" for several years. The organization is one of the supporters of Cambodia Trust, which in turn is the parent organization of CSPO.  Knowing of her parent's love for that country from their time spent there in 1995 during Altman's participation in an ISPO conference, Mansfield was fairly certain her dad would jump at the opportunity--and he did.

Students arrive at CSPO from various countries in Indochina--Afghanistan, Laos, Japan, Pakistan, Myanmar, North Korea, Iraq, Georgia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and of course, Cambodia.  More than 50 percent of the population of Cambodia itself is 20 years of age or younger. According to the World Fact Book located at www.cia.gov, "The population (of young people) lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure. Fully 75 percent of the population remains engaged in subsistence farming."

Pam Altman with a new group of students.
Pam Altman with a new group of students.

Given the environment many of these young people have been born into and the lack of opportunity afforded them, it is truly inspiring for Altman to have a role in assisting them to become productive members of their society and the O&P community in particular. These young people are helping to establish an international O&P organization for their neighborhood, their part of the world.  This organization, OPEN (Orthotists and Prosthetists of Emerging Nations) has great goals on the horizon. A website and blog for O&P educational organizations is under development that will connect 14 different countries from Australia to Japan.  The Strategic Alliance of Prosthetic and Orthotic Schools (SAPOS) is another group that will prove to be an important force.

Altman speaks with pride about those involved in the creation of these groups and what they intend to accomplish, "We are working on mechanisms for continuing education and professional development for the graduates of CSPO. All of these efforts are to help those involved in O&P--the educators, the practitioners--to become full-fledged participants in the larger world of O&P, rather than just recipients of outdated, preconceived notions of what is appropriate as determined by those of us from the West."  He describes the whole process as a lot of fun. Why? It is giving him an opportunity to learn and quench his thirst for knowledge right alongside the young people he is teaching.

The support of Altman's family is amazing. In addition to his daughter's input, his son James is responsible for the implementation and development of the opoedh.org website.  An IT expert, he is working in the Academic Technology Office at Northwestern University in addition to the endless hours volunteered to help Altman bring opoedh.org to reality. In Cambodia, Altman's wife Pam has been an invaluable partner at CSPO.  She facilitates a class for the female students called "The Women's Well-Being Class."  Given the lack of regard for women in general in some of the countries where they reside, topics such as self-esteem, health, and hygiene (AIDS being a rampant disease for instance) are important focuses. The dormitory these students share is hot and rather crowded so another feature of the class is discussing relaxation techniques and giving the students a forum for discussing personal concerns as well as cultural differences.  Pam beams, "I feel honored to have their trust."

In the field of O&P, Altman has garnered the respect and admiration of his colleagues as he continuously involved himself in all aspects of the field.  During his more than 40-year tenure in the profession, he has served as an examiner for the American Board for Certification in Orthotics and Prosthetics. (ABC) prosthetic/orthotic credentialing examinations, chair of the National Examination Committee, a member of the board of directors of ABC, president of ABC, and vice chair of NCOPE (National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education). In 2005 Altman was honored with the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy) Clinical Commitment Award.  The description of this tribute says it all--it honors Academy members who quietly have demonstrated a commitment to ABC's Canon of Ethics and to improving the professional image of O&P to patients, co-workers, and colleagues.

Altman's experience covers the entire spectrum as a patient, researcher, employee, employer, supervisor, teacher, manager, owner, and consultant. With all he has personally achieved, he humbly gives credit for his pursuit of excellence to those that came before him. In 1948 when he was nine years old he was run over by a truck in Brooklyn, New York.  That is the life-altering incident that sparked his interest in prosthetics. There was no such thing as a CPO at that time, but Earle Daniel, a prosthetic specialist working with Howard Rusk, MD, had a huge influence on his choice of career. Altman says with respect, "He openly pushed me in this direction."

Sidney Fishman, PhD, was another mentor that in Altman's opinion opened the door for O&P to become a true health profession by establishing the very first university degree program in O&P at New York University. Reflects Altman, "Although Fishman knew a degree wasn't necessary for the application of O&P services as they then existed, he felt a college degree was the barometer, the measure of intellectual capacity required to raise O&P from being an activity of artisans to that of a full-fledged health profession."  Another fine teacher and mentor, Hans Richard Lehneis, PhD, CPO, inculcated the value of the highest standards for patient services in those he influenced. It is apparent that Altman absorbed what those surrounding him taught and allowed them to influence his choices and work ethic as the years passed.

Altman's sense of humor is another notable quality.  When asked what two pieces of advice he would give to someone starting his' own business he replied, tongue in cheek, "The first thing I'd tell him is not to put his facility too close to any woman-owned facility because she just may be the superior practitioner." The second thing he would tell all practitioners is to get a very good accountant.  Also, make sure you are integrated with the bioinformatics and bioengineering department of your universities.

Altman sees an extraordinary future in which prosthetic/orthotic specialists are accessing how bioinformatics are relevant to O&P.  He feels microelectronics will revolutionize O&P technology.  "All this will assuredly result in methods of establishing or re-establishing levels of function not even dreamed of in the 20th century," Altman states. He is concerned however, that CPOs collectively do not have the ability to remain relevant in a time of such incredible multifaceted technological advances.

"It is, I think, absolutely out of the hands of the field of O&P, as we know it, to control our own destiny." Altman continues, "I believe that to be a direct consequence of our failure to stay ahead of the curve in educational and credentialing standards.  But it does bode well for those who need these services." He notes that in the Far East there are efforts to integrate a variety of disciplines, including O&P, under a rehab engineering core.  The concept is based on the premise that traditional education in O&P linked to conventional "technology" will be obsolete in the very near future.

What is next for the Altman family? Considering the commitment level both Altman and his wife feel toward CSPO, it would seem the possibilities are endless. As long as there are students to teach and patients to care for, there will be a strong desire on their part to be involved and contribute as much as they possibly can to the field of O&P. Their example should inspire and motivate anyone and everyone who can do more to help others in whatever walk of life they choose.