Posts in Think
Rachel Siegal, prosthetist resident in downtown Chicago, on work and motherhood
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Rachel Siegal

prosthesis resident at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab

One thing is for sure - before this interview I did not know how to spell prosthetics and orthotics. But thanks to my interviewee's patience and grace, I am finally feeling pretty sophisticated. I'm very excited to introduce you all today to Rachel Siegal - a Prosthesis Resident at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. She also happens to be my sister-in-law, and mom to my gorgeous little niece. Before Rachel started her residency, she would often walk over to my apartment in the afternoons with her baby to hang out with me and my two toddlers. Rachel is the kind of friend you don't have to clean up for and doesn't judge, which is the only kind of friend you should have past age 25 at the latest. I know you'll love reading what Rachel has to say as much as I have! 

It’s finally happening Rach! The interview has arrived, and I'm excited for readers to learn about your amazing career path. First things first – how did you choose to work in prosthetics? What was your first introduction to the field?

My plan in college was to be pre-med.  But like most freshman in college, I had no idea what I was talking about.  Once I fully understood how much schooling would go into being a doctor, I decided it wasn’t for me and looked into careers in allied health: nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech pathology, etc.  I did a lot of informational interviewing during my first two years in college, and at a certain point found prosthetics and orthotics.  I was given the opportunity to work as an intern in several practices over summers and during school and decided that this was the field for me.

Can you tell us a bit about what a prosthetist does? 

A prosthetist fits artificial limbs for patients who have suffered some kind of amputation: traumatic, due to disease, illness, etc.  I work directly with the patient, doctors, physical/occupational therapists to create a prosthetic limb that will work for the patient's life and activities.  Our first focus is to get people to be independent in Activities of Daily Living (ADL's), but we also want to create something that gets a person back to the activity level they were at prior to the amputation, whether that means an activity specific device or a device with customized components.

What was your education up until this point? When do you complete your residency?

I have a B.S. from the University of Michigan in Biological Anthropology (which allowed me to do all my pre-med pre-requisites except for Calculus!).  I then completed my Master’s in Prosthetics and Orthotics at Northwestern University.  I’m currently doing an 18-month long residency in Prosthetics at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago which I will complete in June 2018.

When you’re working in the clinic with your patients, what’s a typical day like for you? What are your responsibilities?

There’s no typical day, but each day consists of working with patients on fitting/designing their prostheses. Each prosthesis is custom-made because every person’s body and needs are so different.  I also have documentation (like doctor’s and other health professionals) to write after each appointment for medical records.  Between patients, I’m typically in our fabrication lab working on fabricating, modifying, and adjusting devices for patients.

I imagine that your work can be very difficult and emotional at times, especially when working with children or with patients who have experienced trauma very recently. Do you find that patients and/or their families lean on you and your colleagues for both medical and emotional support?

I try to see the positive side in difficult situations, especially in pediatrics or when a patient has had some kind of trauma.  We are working towards a goal of getting the patient to be functional or independent again.  I try to empathize with the patient and their family as best I can and reassure them that I’m here to help and to move them forward in the rehabilitation process.  We have lots of discussions about the patient’s goals and home life which helps us create a device which will be most beneficial for the patient.  That’s a long way of saying, yes, part of our job is to provide emotional support and reassurance to the families.  As for colleagues, long-time clinicians have seen all sorts of difficult situations.  I lean on them for support if I am unsure of how to handle a situation.

What has been your most challenging case so far? Your most rewarding?

My most challenging case involved a patient with bilateral (both sides) transhumeral (above elbow) amputations secondary to trauma.  He was learning to use his prostheses and I was able to attend most of his occupational therapy sessions with him over the course of about 6 months.  He didn’t have the best attitude, which made helping him difficult.  However, in the end, he made tremendous progress.  Because of all the effort I put in to working with him, his case was probably my most rewarding as well.


What advice do you have for those who are thinking about prosthetics and orthotics? Is there something you wish someone had told you?

Clinical experience prior to entering school is a must.  Be assertive, ask questions, and get technical experience as well.


What kind of projects would you love to be working on in the future? Is there a specific aspect of prosthetics that you’re drawn to the most?  

I love working with kids.  My residency has taught me that in my heart, I’m a pediatric clinician.  I love working with children and their families more than anything.  They do so well with their devices and I love seeing them jump up and run around after we’ve fit them.  I don’t see the sadness in their situations, just their hope and excitement for the future.

That's incredible, I love your perspective. I know you're applying for an orthotics residency right now. What would you most like to get out of your next residency program?

I'm just excited to get back into orthotics.  I've been doing only prosthetics for the last year, and I originally got into the field because of orthotics, so I really miss it.  Also, while you work with all types of patients in orthotic practice, you generally get to see a lot of kids, which I'm really looking forward to.  I'd like to have a well-rounded experience and see as much as I can in the next year: different patient populations, pathologies, different devices, etc.

Now for the "working mom" questions, of course... As a mother of a (delicious) toddler with a demanding job… what’s a part of the balancing act that you find particularly challenging?

I work long hours during the week, so it’s difficult to be “on” as a mom when I come home each day.  I try my best to be fully present and engage with her by playing or reading, but sometimes the best I can do is cuddle up in the rocking chair and watch Moana with my little girl.  The other thing that definitely falls through the cracks is housework.  Dishes, laundry and clean up take a back seat as a working mom.

In what way could society be more accommodating of and sensitive to the lives working moms? Is there something you would like to see change?

It would be amazing to have more affordable daycare options for parents who work full-time.  It was a real struggle to work out daycare for our daughter when having a nanny was not an affordable option for us.

And lastly… what do you like to do during your commute? And what are your favorite ways to unwind and recharge?

During my commute, I usually like to read. Or I might even take a quick nap...
To recharge: Sleep, hot bath, Netflix, and that caramel cheese popcorn mix from our grocery store :)

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Rachel Siegal
Prosthetist Resident at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab
MA in Prosthetics and Orthotics, Northwestern University

P.S. Check out more amazing women here:

Erin Zaikis................founder of the non profit Sundara
Fawn Julsaint...........our house and home contributor
Rivki Silver...............Writer in Cleveland, Ohio
Melissa Josephs........Director of Equal Opportunity at Women Employed

Think, GrowNurit SiegalComment
Engaging in Conversation 2 - Cycle of Fragile Trust

I could technically make a separate blog for whenever I wanted to discuss bigger, more controversial issues. But in keeping all these different kinds of topics together, I hope this blog starts to feel sort of like a friendship. Sometimes you disagree with one another or have to talk about the deeper, more uncomfortable stuff, but by the next day you’re already going to get ice cream to relax and talk about your day.

I hope that, in some way, it’s felt a bit like that for you.  


Throughout my time during and after college (and grad school), I had the opportunity to volunteer, intern, and work for many different Jewish organizations, several of which were aimed at building bridges between disparate Jewish communities. My favorite place I interned was at the Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Tel Aviv for a summer.  Israel is well known for its extremely tense relations between secular and Haredi (Israel’s ultra-Orthodox) communities. I was more or less secular at that time in my life, but I saw how everyone at the SACC was treated with a sense of respect and friendship. Their newly renovated and wonderful air conditioned building also happened to be across from two amazing cafés. Every morning I would take the bus, pick up a cafe afouch (“upside down coffee”), and work up to a full day even though my program only required I volunteer four hours. It was just that great of a place.

About three years later, I interned for a short time at a non-profit in the U.S. after having become religious. After several long conversations with the director – who was in charge of offering culturally sensitive programs and services as well as an olive branch to the local Orthodox community – it became clear that the director did not have a very positive opinion of the religious community or its leadership. By the end of my time there, I kept many thoughts to myself and regretted it. It motivated me to keep trying to understand what’s really going on between our communities.

From what I’ve seen so far, what typically happens when secular leadership reaches out to the Orthodox community is usually one of two things (or sometimes they can both occur almost simultaneously). One possibility is that the religious community is given an opportunity to shine a light and explain our culture to mainstream society. Orthodox leadership and lay people are given the chance to respond to challenging questions and share their perspective. One example was during a panel discussion I attended at the Jewish Federation’s 2011 General Assembly that gave Haredi leadership the chance to answer tough questions from a secular crowd about anything from army service and employment, to their cultural insularity. Another great example was when Oprah Winfrey went with an open mind to the Chabad community of Crown Heights, New York in 2012 to check out the misunderstood lives of religious Jews there. These are often seen as rare opportunities to show ourselves in a new – and better – light.

The other possibility is for secular leadership to step in and intervene with a religious community to either delicately encourage, push, or – in extreme cases – force the community to change. This type of call-to-action can occur in the media when the community is accused of wrongdoing, it can be brought up by politicians and activists, or it can happen when a non-profit intervenes in a social issue. An organization may work closely – and respectfully – with a religious community to introduce modern social services for religious men and women, for example, but the behind the scenes frustration with molasses-paced change or resistance to change, motivates the organization to stay as involved and as focused as possible.

While the former "Oprah" kind of interactions are often seen as a positive opportunity for religious communities to explain their perspective, I believe that these exchanges are incomplete and even unfair because the dialogues are not happening on equal footing. The underlying message is that Orthodox Jewish communities must explain itself to society to the best of their abilities, with no guarantee that it won't end in harsh judgment or a push for the community to change itself. 

I can tell you personally – as I’m sure we all can – that it is almost impossible for me to build a deep connection with a friend that I constantly have to prove or defend myself to. She may see me at my “best” (after I shower, put on makeup, give myself a pep talk, etc.) but I would never want to feel vulnerable, or trust her with the parts of my life where I feel I could use help and support. When she sees me at my worst, I feel that she didn't expected much for me anyway, and I would be wary of any advice she tried to offer. 

Without laying the right foundation for a better, more real and vulnerable dialogue, our inter-community relations will remain stuck in this viscous cycle of defensive back-and-forths and

I can tell you personally – as I’m sure we all can – that it is almost impossible for me to build a deep connection with a friend that I constantly have to prove or defend myself to. She may see me at my “best” (after I shower, put on makeup, give myself a pep talk, etc.) but I would never want to feel vulnerable with her, or trust her with the parts of my life where I feel I could use help and support. When she sees me at my worst, I feel that she didn't expected much for me anyway, and I would feel wary of any advice she tried to offer. 

Without laying the right foundation for a better, more real and vulnerable dialogue, our inter-community relations will remain stuck in this viscous cycle of defensive back-and-forths and extremely tenuous trust. 

ThinkNurit SiegalComment
The Happiest Woman On Earth: A Look at the Conversation on Women’s Empowerment and Happiness

For the past few weeks, we’ve talked a bit about feminism, Judaism, and the question of sexism. My hope was that by responding to (rather than answering) the question “Isn’t Judaism Sexist?” we could take a fresh look at the conversation about religion and women. I loved reading the questions and comments you guys had on social media and on the blog and I truly appreciate your engagement!

Today and in future posts, I'd love to take the conversation a bit further and talk about how the current cultural debate on women’s empowerment, happiness, and self-fulfillment has not only caused tension between communities, but has placed an enormous burden on individual women to prove their happiness and level of empowerment to others. Last week I wrote a bit about the scrutiny and questions I face as a religion woman, but I don’t think I’m alone in grappling with what it means to prove yourself as an empowered, successful woman today.

What does a happy and empowered woman look like? Every woman and every community has been called upon to answer. Every group, from the most religious to the most radically liberal communities, feels a certain pressure today to prove that they indeed have the happiest, most truly “liberated” women. There is now an expectation for each woman to show that she is indeed empowered and productive in the culture and community she lives in. But this cultural race to find or become the most empowered woman does not come without consequence. By taking a step back for a moment we can see what this all implies – that “unhappy” women threaten the image and legitimacy of a community, group, or society.

The pressure that staunchly feminist women, orthodox Jewish women, Mormon women, Muslim women, liberal/democratic women, or republican women feel to “not let their community down” is both overwhelming and unsustainable. Depression, anxiety, “excessive” struggle, and an “inability” to cope with our societal expectations for perfection has become the ultimate source of shame for many. I don’t believe that we are doing this maliciously, nor do I believe we intended for women to be pitted against one another. But it will be important to take a look at the consequences of this cultural debate and to discuss how we can potentially let go of our defensiveness and ease the burden on women.

Letting Go of "Charlie Girl"
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Last week, I had a fun time giving you guys a peak into the chaos that is my day-to-day life. On any given day, I feel everything from joy and comfort (visiting family and catching up on life), to serious frustration (forgetting diapers at home) to loneliness or boredom (going to the doctor at times feels like a social outing). These are the moments that fill up a day and make up a life. We all want to approach these feelings and activities in a way that bridges our everyday challenges to a life of purpose and fulfillment. Sometimes that wonderful trip over the bridge is effortless and flower-filled, while other times that same bridge has an obnoxious troll on it asking us questions and making us jump hurdles to prevent us from progress.

Trying to stay thoughtful and honest about those hurdles the ones we all experience but sometimes never talk about is the tall mission of the “Think” section of Lipstick & Brisket. We’ll talk about the various opportunities and challenges that we all confront and contemplate, as well as our bigger-picture goals – anything from trying to define our hopes and dreams to discussing our morals and beliefs. These ideas will of course change and develop throughout our lives, but they will also help to give us direction, establish boundaries, and bring a sense of community and meaning to the things that can often feel monotonous and difficult in daily life.

As a religious Jewish woman, I definitely have a prescribed framework for how I think about and live my life. But there is a lot of gray area, much I have to decide on my own, and a lot of room for discussion. L & B is the space I wanted to create to talk about more complicated topics with those who want to talk about them too – anything from honestly discussing the difficult work/life balance women face, to addressing the apparent tensions between religious and progressive communities that both make the headlines and hit a personal nerve for many, to thinking about issues surrounding social media and privacy. For today, I wanted to start out with some food-for-thought to get us in the zone for those future conversations we’ll be having together.

As I mentioned before, our day-to-day schedules are influenced by those life philosophies we believe in, even if it doesn’t always seem obvious. The responsibilities and the expectations we give and set for ourselves are directly linked to our beliefs about what it means to live an accomplished life, and, more specifically, what we believe it means to be an accomplished woman. How do we express ourselves in our lives, at our workplaces, in our relationships and in our homes without succumbing to crippling definitions of success? This is not just a personal question, but a social one. What does it mean on a communal level if we each individually define fulfillment as a quest for the unattainable? For perfection?

I wanted to leave you all to think about this question with a thought and a quote from my favorite book Wonder Women, written by the dean of Barnard, Deborah Spar. In the book (which I highly recommend), Spar both uncovers and confesses herself what women really want and what society (and even at times our loved ones) tells us – that we can “have it all”. We can be everything: Perfectly patient mothers, successful careerists, wonderfully loving and supportive wives, and constantly available community members. If we try hard enough, we can do this all effortlessly, with a put-together home and beautiful shoes to top it off. Spar discusses how this ambitious image was epitomized so well by the “Charlie girl” perfume commercial of the 70s. The Charlie girl was a woman who seemed like she was flying through everything in life with a pearly-white smile – similar to the Super Woman character of my first blog post. But finally, Spar comes to a conclusion she never imagined possible…

“Charlie was dead. Even worse, we realized at last that Charlie had never lived—that there was never a woman—a real woman, at least—who balanced her life and her loves and her job and her children with the panache that women of my generation believed would come naturally…In the end, of course, the myth of Charlie was just that: one silly commercial, capturing a particularly far-flung fantasy. It wasn’t true, and never was. But it left an indelible mark nevertheless on millions of women and girls, convincing us, seducing us with a dream of feminine perfection. We really thought we could have it all, and when reality proved otherwise we blamed—not the media, as it turned out…We blamed ourselves.” 

By striving to do everything extremely well, we end up stretching ourselves so thin that we can hardly derive any joy from our experiences and feel like we've failed. The good news is that it’s not too late to let go of the “Charlie girl” dream, and to think about what we actually want to achieve in real life – and that’s where we’ll pick up next time.


I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below



ThinkNurit SiegalComment