Jack-of-all-trades may be the best description of Rochelle Skaggs, ’13, who works by day as a project engineer for Carlson Construction. By night, she’s a Chicago Blade Runners athlete and the latest product ambassador for the prosthetic company Össur.
But the alumna of Indiana State University’s construction management program almost didn’t follow her passion.
“I always liked doodling houses when I was growing up and was huge into Legos and Lincoln Logs, but when I got into school, I went the typical medical route,” she said. “I and didn’t like it, so I decided to go back to my roots of design and construction.”
At State, she was involved in the Construction Club and worked on projects, like a handicap ramp at the American Red Cross in Terre Haute and participated in bid competitions in Chicago.
“The professors were great at pushing me, specifically as a woman in construction,” she said. “The events going to Chicago for competition and giving us that real-life experience — not just books in a classroom — helped better prepare us for working in the field than we ever imagined.”
After graduating from State in December 2013, Skaggs worked in Terre Haute for a year and a half before accepting a position in downtown Chicago for a year. Skaggs has been employed for nearly two years with Carlson Construction in Joliet, Ill., where she is responsible for schedule preparation, pre-planning and resource forecasting for engineering and other technical activities of a project.
“When I moved to Chicago and worked downtown, I had 20 or 30 other project engineers who were women with engineering degrees,” she said. “It’s definitely a field that is becoming more popular with women, and I think that’s excellent.”
The move has enhanced Skaggs’ quality of life living with amniotic band syndrome, a birth defect that occurs when a fetus becomes entangled in fibrous string-like amniotic bands in the womb, restricting blood flow and affecting the baby’s development. The cause is unknown, and the effects vary by person.
“It impacts both of my legs, so I have prosthetics from the knee down. I have four fingers, three on my right and one on my left, so I’m working on getting a bionic hand,” she said. “Since I moved (to Chicago), I got a new pair of prosthetics with hydraulic ankles and actually have foot and ankle movement. Between the medical advances and opportunities I have had available to me now, I couldn’t be happier. Being born this way, I have never known anything else, so I just try to make the best of it and live my life as happy as I can.”
Happiness equals a pair well-fitting legs, as Skaggs discovered when she began searching for a more advanced prosthetic than the typical walking leg after moving to Chicago.
“I got fitted for my new legs, and when I put my new foot on, the practitioner took a video of me walking for the first time and sent it to Össur, a prosthetic company. Within 24 hours, I got a call from Össur that they were going to Milwaukee and wanted me to come as an ambassador,” she said. “I’m what they call a product champion patient model. I joke that I’m a foot model, but what I do is show practitioners, doctors and chiropractors how I stand, walk and show how my gait now, which is straight and level, compares to my old legs, which had a little bit of a limp.”
Last year, Skaggs traveled to Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Albuquerque in her first few months as an ambassador and patient model for Össur.
“I know when I have a bad day and my legs hurt so bad that the only thing I can do is take my legs off because they hurt so badly,” she said. “If I can help people to realize that they can walk an entire day and not be afraid of falling or tripping, it’s huge.”
If anyone knows what a gift prosthetics are, it’s Skaggs. After moving to Oak Park, Ill., from Terre Haute, she found a new prosthetic practitioner who inquired about her desire to run.
“It’s difficult to do on a normal walking prosthetic, and I couldn’t afford a pair of running legs. But I found out that if I got involved with the Chicago Blade Runners, they would donate a pair of running legs to me,” she said. “After about a year of fittings, coordination and training, I got my first pair of running prosthetics. I’ve been running with them for going on three years now and have run with the Chicago Blade Runners every summer since.”
The Chicago Blade Runners are not a competitive organization, but one that allows blade runners to participate in large 5Ks in downtown Chicago with a five-minute head start and guide runners, or able-bodied runners, who accompany a blade runner on their not-so-sound side.
“A lot of the girls I run with have been to the Paralympics and won golds, but I’m a competitive person so I try to keep up with them,” Skaggs said. “I have gone from running a 5K in one-and-a-half hours and to running it in about 30 minutes if I really, really push myself. But it’s less about competition and more about reaching our personal bests.”