Léa Richer smiled as she pulled up a video on her laptop.
“You asked me why I wanted to be a prosthetist,” she began.
The man in the video had one of his legs amputated and was walking with a newly-fitted prosthetic leg. Upon crossing to the other side of the room, the man broke into a smile.
“That face? That is why I do what I do,” Richer said. “Because making people smile like that and giving them that independence to be able to walk out the door - there’s nothing like it.”
The long hours of work and study Richer does are motivated by the outcomes she’s witnessed. Four days a week, Richer begins with six hours of classes. Some of those days, she follows up her classes with an eight-hour shift as a supervisor at the Woodbury Costco, where she also spends Saturdays and Sundays.
The St. Paul resident is working toward a Master of Science in Orthotics and Prosthetics at Concordia University, St. Paul. She is also nearing the completion of an Orthotic and Prosthetic Clinical Applications Diploma from Century College in White Bear Lake, where she is learning how to fabricate the devices.
“I figured if I’m going to be working in fixing things for people, I might as well know how to build them from the ground up,” she said.
Richer must complete a seven-week practicum this summer, where she will work on practical skills related to her studies. She will spend part of the time shadowing at a private practice in Idaho and the other part working with the Range of Motion Project, or ROMP, in Ecuador.
Richer has turned to GoFundMe for help, hoping to raise $10,000 to cover her travel and living expenses. She plans to donate the rest to ROMP.
ROMP’s mission is motivated by the belief that disability doesn’t come from being an amputee, but from not having access to prosthetic care, Richer said. The nonprofit works to make prosthetics and other health care more accessible in underserved areas in the United States, Ecuador and Guatemala.
After finishing her education, Richer would like to work in post-combat care, adaptive sports, and international relief for prosthetics care in areas that have experienced war. Her thesis is focused on the relationship between post-combat mental health and the use of prosthetics in combat amputees.
Ultimately she hopes to work at a U.S. military amputee treatment center or a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital and continue working with ROMP.
'I needed to be able to do'
After college, Richer volunteered at the Minneapolis VA for two years in the pharmacy and the prosthetics center. She then moved back to Cape Cod, where she grew up, and worked in primary care.
But Richer's life changed when her sister was involved in an accident in the French Alps in January 2016.
As they waited for a helicopter, Richer felt helpless. It was then that she realized she wanted to further her medical training.
"I needed to be a practitioner - I needed to be able to do something next time someone ended up being in my arms on the side of a mountain waiting for a Helivac," she said. "I needed to be able to do, not just be there and hold her hand."
After an informational interview at Prosthetic Laboratories in Rochester, Minn., the path forward seemed clear.
"It was like someone slapped me across the face and said, 'You idiot, this is what you were supposed to have been doing the whole time,'" Richer said.
Her interest in orthotics and prosthetics wasn't new: she had spent three and a half years in a back brace after being diagnosed with scoliosis, an experience she said greatly impacted her teenage years.
She drew on this later as a student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. While working on a bachelor's degree in anthropology, Richer did a research project on the history of scoliosis back bracing.
"I ended up getting really interested because a lot of medical anthropology and history is wartime history, so (I was) studying really interesting prosthetics," she said.
Richer moved back to Minnesota in July 2017. Though she has taken out student loans to help finance her education, her job at Costco helps pay her living expenses. She plans to continue to work at the store until she begins a residency program in July 2020, saying the store's leadership has been "immensely supportive" of her education.
"I'm sticking with them because they've stuck with me," Richer said.