For the past five years, Mercer University biomedical engineering professor, Dr. Ha Van Vo, a group of students and faculty have been fitting amputees with free prosthetic legs that were developed in a lab on their campus in Macon. The program’s leaders are now working with contractors in Vietnam to manufacture the limbs there.
The group traveled to Vietnam in mid-December as part of the Mercer on Mission program, which was founded in 2007 and has established volunteer projects in southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. The team began their journey in Ho Chi Minh City, then traveled about three hours south to Can Tho and finished their trip in Phung Hiep.
Dr. Vo, who emigrated from Vietnam to America in 1990, said the idea to develop prosthetic legs came from seeing countless people whose limbs were blown off or disfigured by land mines in postwar Vietnam. Many are injured or killed while farming, he said.
“I remembered my people in Vietnam with no legs, crawling. Children — a lot of them,” he said. “I said ‘Oh, we have to do something for them. They cannot just crawl in the dust like that.’”
More than 50 people were injured by land mines in Vietnam in 2012 and 18 were killed, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor — which provides research for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Vo and State Department officials say untold numbers of land mines are still hidden in nearly every region of the southeast Asian country 40 years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
American efforts to find and remove land mines and other unexploded ordnance are led by the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement — a branch of the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, department spokesman David I. McKeeby said in an email. The federal government has spent about $2 billion over the past 20 years to dispose of small munitions — including land mines — in more than 90 countries, McKeeby said. Of that amount, about $65.5 million has been spent to find leftover explosives in Vietnam and fund survivor assistance programs through 2012, according to the State Department.
The prosthetic legs made in the Mercer University lab include three main components — a socket, a pylon to serve as the leg bone and a foot. Mercer on Mission participants also fasten adjustable straps and clamps around the back of the leg sockets, which allows amputees to adjust the size of the socket opening.
The prosthetics cost about $120 each to manufacture and the school is working with Vietnamese contractors to increase production and launch a permanent clinic in the country, said Craig McMahan, Mercer on Mission director. The university works with several partner organizations and the director of the Can Tho Orthopedics and Rehabilitation Center, Dr. Nguyen Lap, to find patients and obtain necessary legal and medical clearances from the Vietnamese government, he said.
The school’s short-term goal is to increase production of the limbs to 2,000 per year and eventually meet the need of those who’ve lost limbs because of land mines and other factors — including accidents and disease. University officials say the team is also looking to expand distribution of the limbs to Haiti and parts of Africa.
Prosthetics made in the campus lab are cheaper than many alternatives because the sockets are made of polypropylene plastic instead of carbon fiber, which can also take longer to custom fit, Vo and McMahan said.
“I think it’s a good approach they’re taking,” said Kevin Carroll, vice president of prosthetics at Austin, Texas-based Hanger Inc., a manufacturer of prosthetic and orthotic products.
Carroll said his company uses carbon fiber to custom make leg sockets, but using polypropylene is a good approach to serve those who don’t have access to prosthetics made of the more expensive and labor intensive material.
Carroll said it’s very important to “try to figure out cost-effective ways of getting care on the ground when it’s needed, and to continue a sustainable approach.”
The first Mercer on Mission team traveled to Vietnam in 2009. Vo and McMahan, who serves as university minister and Dean of the school’s chapel, said before the December trip, students had already fitted about 775 amputees with the adjustable prosthetic legs.
“The whole experience is very intense and emotional,” said fifth-year engineering student, Jamie Duffy, who went to Vietnam in June and recalled the connections she made with amputees. “If it takes a little bit longer, you can kind of see the patient is getting frustrated because you might be getting frustrated, but it’s like even though you don’t speak the same language you still sense each other’s emotion.”
Pictures from one of the team’s trips show a farmer who fastened tire treads to his knees after he lost the lower portion of both legs in a land mine explosion.
Aside from the risk of personal injury, the presence of undetonated explosives in Vietnam has also stymied the country’s economic development opportunities, Vo, McMahan and State Department officials have said.
In many cases, lost limbs leave amputees with few opportunities to support themselves or their families.
“You cannot get a job, you’re on the floor what are you gonna do?” Vo asked. “They crawl in the dirt and beg for money because society abandons them. That’s the sad part. If they can walk again, they can make a living of it.”