Maria Stories

Maria Story: Jodie O’Connell-Ponkos, Health & Occupational Sciences BS

Jodie O’Connell-Ponkos was accepted into Maria College’s Occupational Therapy Assistant Program in 2019 and plans to graduate in May 2022 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health & Occupational Sciences. She has applied to Maria’s MSOT program and plans to continue her studies in the Fall. She currently works as a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) at Livingston Hills Nursing and Rehabilitation.

“I love Maria. Especially the small classes, the closeness you get with the professors. They are so patient and have a dedication to their students and the OT profession is amazing,” she shared. Many of Maria students, especially adult learners returning to school, found the transition to online coursework to be challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Jodie expressed how the professors went above and beyond to help her through that transition. She persevered with resilience, just like she has through many other life obstacles. 

Jodie’s story is one marked with incredible determination and purpose. In the summer of 1985, when she was 16 years old and a junior in high school, she experienced a traumatic injury to her hand while working at a local deli. Jodie was right-handed and her right arm, from her elbow down, needed to be amputated. She pushed through this time of healing, recovery, and relearning with the support of her parents and the stubborn attitude of her Irish dad reminding her, “Oh, girl, you are not giving up.” During this time, Jodie found comfort in her passion of horseback riding. In fact, she returned to the saddle only 4 weeks after her surgery. “Horses don’t judge you. They just love you for who you are.” 

Jodie earned an Associate Degree in Fashion Merchandising and had a successful career in retail before opening her own business. In 2009, she started Destiny’s Ride Equestrian Center, LLC, located in Ghent, NY, to serve others who might benefit from the healing nature of horses. Her life took an unexpected turn in 2015, when she decided to try out a prosthetic arm. “I was not expecting to like using it,” Jodie shared, since she had had a bad experience with one in the past. Assistive technology had advanced significantly since her first attempt. As a fast learner, she caught on quickly to using different muscle impulses, signaling a variety of different hand grips.

Jodie decided that she wanted to share her experience with prostheses and returned to Maria College to further herself in a therapy field. The real-life experiences that many value at Maria, including labs and fieldwork, have been challenging but also rewarding to Jodie. She shared, “I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to do OT tasks with only one arm. With the prosthetic arm, I have to figure out how to do something in my head before I start doing it with my hand.” Every obstacle she overcomes brings her one step closer to completing a Bachelor’s, continuing on to graduate studies, and using her experiences to help others with physical limitations, especially amputees.