Nicole’s Recipe for Success
In 1991 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Annette and Jeff Clark had an unexpected surprise when their triplet babies arrived 3 months ahead of schedule. Nicole Clark was born alongside her brother, Jay, who was born legally blind, and her sister, Christy, who was born without any disabilities. Nicole’s left arm had no circulation, and the decision was made to have it amputated above the elbow when she was only 17 days old.
“I don’t remember exactly when I was fit for my first passive prosthesis, but I know I was very young”, said Nicole. “It’s my normal. I’ve worn as many as 8 to 10 different prosthetics for as long as I can remember. I didn’t always like wearing it at school, but I was never teased by anyone. Because I grew up at the same school in Warsaw, Indiana my entire life, it was normal to everyone”. Nicole continued by saying, “People always have questions for me, and I’m always alright with it. People, especially kids, are naturally curious and I don’t mind talking about it because I’ve been an amputee all of my life”.
Nicole’s passion for food came unexpectedly for her during the summer between her 7th and 8th grade year when she discovered the Food Network Channel and began watching it constantly.
“I started taking cooking classes in middle school and I found out that I really liked working with food”, said Nicole, with a smile on her face that only the most passionate chefs possess. “I continued to cook at home throughout high school until my junior year when I learned that there was a vocational culinary program being offered at Whitko Community Schools in South Whitley, Indiana. They had a lot of fun cooking events and it was a great experience learning the basics of cooking and baking”.
Nicole’s passion for cooking would carry over into her senior year when she worked part time at Betty’s Cake Shop in Warsaw, Indiana. “I did a lot of cleaning in the shop, and I was able to bake cookies and other small dishes”, said Nicole. “At the time, I was wearing a hybrid prosthesis with a myoelectric hand and mechanical elbow. It was hard to work around the kitchen when I had to manually lock and unlock my elbow with my good hand”.
In 2009, Nicole decided to take the next big step in her life and enrolled in the Culinary Arts Program at Ivy Tech Community College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “It has been an amazing experience”, said Nicole, with that same passionate smile locked on her face. “I had to make a few adaptations for my prosthesis. I purchased a specialized cutting board that sticks to the countertop with suction cups and has two screws on top to help hold the food in place while I use my knife. I also tried a custom pot holder that I could grab with my prosthesis, as well as an electric turntable designed to spin a cake in place as I decorated it”.
Nicole’s instructor at Ivy Tech Community College is Chef Hetty Arts, Adjunct Faculty Member in Hospitality Administration for Bakery and Arts at Ivy Tech. “Chef Hetty is a great instructor”, Nicole said. “She is very knowledgeable, positive, kind and most importantly, very patient”. “This young lady has such a positive attitude and does not let her disability interfere with her goals whatsoever”, said Chef Hetty. “I initially thought this may be challenging to work with, but Nicki has proven to be a flawless student who works extra hard. I honestly cannot say we have had true challenges that we have had to overcome when it comes to Nicki’s prosthesis. She is always willing to try things first, and if it doesn’t work out exactly as planned, other students are such team players they jump in and help hold a mixing bowl or sieve without even needing to be asked. At times, projects take a little bit longer to complete, but Nicki has been able to participate in all of the topics covered in the kitchen. She’s always on her game, focused and driven in the kitchen environment. She’s a true team player, listening and working with others in the best manner possible. I think above all, Nicki is a student with a tremendously positive attitude and she’s so genuinely nice to everyone she interacts with. She sets the bar very high for both her classmates and other individuals with prosthetics!”
In 2012, Nicole’s prosthesis had broken and her father, Jeff, was looking around at various prosthetic companies in the area for help, and they found SRT. “I wanted to have my prosthesis fixed, but also wanted to see about getting a hook that might help me in the kitchen. Sam Santa-Rita (SRT Prosthetist and CEO) was able to fix my prosthesis, and then also helped me get a new prosthesis with both a hand and a hook. Everyone on the Upper Extremity Team at SRT is very knowledgeable. They know what they’re doing. I really like working with Brooke O’Steen (OTR and SRT Health Professional Liaison). She has helped me a lot with learning how to use my prosthesis both at home and in the kitchen”.
While listening to the description of her new myoelectric prosthesis with the Boston Elbow, operated by a linear transducer and a dual channel EMG controlled terminal device, Nicole laughed and said, “I don’t know what most of that means, but I know that I like it because I don’t have to use my good arm to work my prosthesis anymore”.
SRT is very proud of the accomplishments of soon-to-be Chef Nicole, and admire her tenacity and attitude, not necessarily for overcoming adversity, but rather for never considering that she had adversity to overcome in the first place. “It’s possible to do what you love to do”, said Nicole. “It’s not always going to be easy, with or without a disability. You need a positive attitude and the ability to laugh at yourself. With patience and persistence, it will happen”.