‘It’s still sinking in that I’ll be working with elite athletes’

CHOSEN Emily Harrison will be working with the 2012 Paralympic rowing teams.  'Picture: Malcolm Wells (122085-7837)
CHOSEN Emily Harrison will be working with the 2012 Paralympic rowing teams. 'Picture: Malcolm Wells (122085-7837)
Fareham Borough Council leader, cllr Sean Woodward with parliamentary under-secretary of state from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dr Th�r�se Coffey MP

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When Emily Harrison was young, she loved nothing more than to help her dad in his workshop.

He was a mechanic and she learned much about fixing cars and machinery.

She also had a penchant for sculpture and fine art.

When it came to leaving her school in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, she hadn’t a clue what she wanted to do. She’d been successful in arts and science subjects.

‘I had this enormous book which listed every career under the sun. None of them appealed until I got to P and found prosthetics,’ she says.

‘I didn’t know anyone who was into artificial limbs. It sounded interesting so I went for it.’

Only two universities offered the course – Strathclyde and Salford. And so it was that the Yorkshire girl crossed into Lancashire to learn about building new legs, arms and feet for amputees.

And that’s where she also discovered rowing – on the River Irwell and the Manchester Ship Canal.

Now, in a strange twist of fate, she has managed to combine mechanics, sculpture and rowing into her everyday life in Portsmouth.

And her career and private passion have won her a prestigious place at the Paralympics later this summer.

She uses the mechanics to create new joints, say, a knee or an ankle; her sculpting skills come to the fore when modelling a replica plaster mould of a stump to get a perfect fit for a new leg or arm, and she rows for Southsea Rowing Club.

As a result she has been chosen as one of just 16 specialist volunteer technicians to look after Paralympians in August and September for the games which follow the Olympics.

And, in another coincidence, she has landed a job at the rowing event at Dorney Lake, Eton.

Emily has worked at the Disablement Services Centre at St Mary’s Hospital, Milton, for eight years since she graduated in prosthetics from Salford.

She’s a member of a team which makes and fits artificial body parts in the workshops at the back of the hospital.

They are employed by Ottobock Healthcare, which is contracted to the NHS to provide the limbs and then maintain or replace them for patients from the wider Portsmouth area.

Emily adds: ‘Getting the rowing was an added bonus. When they first asked for volunteers I wasn’t too sure about it, whether I had the experience, and said no initially.

‘But afterwards I kicked myself and told myself I should be brave and go for it.

‘Luckily they called for more volunteers because they needed extra people for the sailing and rowing and I got the rowing.

‘It will give me the chance to further my knowledge of prosthetics at the very highest level of mobility.

‘It’s still sinking in that I’ve got this once-in-a-lifetime chance to work at an event of such magnitude, with elite athletes, on my home turf.’

Two others from the St Mary’s unit will be helping the disabled athletes. Emily says: ‘Our manager, Haley Wagner, has allowed us all to have the time off and I’m sure that the experiences we learn there will help us back at work.’

She’ll be working at the Olympic rowing village from August 27 until September 4.

‘I’ll be helping maintain and repair the athletes’ prosthetic limbs for both competition and day-to-day use.

‘I’ll also be pitching in and helping out with other repairs that come our way where extra hands are required.’

She says that double leg amputees will row without their artificial limbs.

‘It’s all in the upper body strength because in their boats the seats don’t move backwards and forwards as they do in ordinary boats.

‘I’ve been in touch with Ottobock colleagues who worked at the Beijing Paralympics to get an idea of the types of repairs they encountered and with wheelchairs it could anything from new spokes to new wheels.

‘If it’s anything like everyday prosthetics, you will be kept on your toes and have to be prepared for anything that’s thrown at you.’

It sounds a bit like the pits in a Formula 1 race.

‘In a way, yes, the service provided by Ottobock is often compared to the pit lane in motorsport.

‘As technical service provider, our role is to carry out repair and maintenance on the equipment used by Paralympic athletes and quickly get them back on the track or court. The workshop is always a hive of activity.

‘However, with thousands of athletes competing in 20 sports and using a variety of equipment no two repairs are the same. You have to be creative. I’ve even heard that a wheelchair was fixed with a ballpoint pen.’