Mercer University planning big expansion of prosthetics program

Georgia Public BroadcastingDecember 25, 2013 

Mercer University officials are aiming for a huge expansion of a program that addresses a lingering tragedy of the Vietnam War.

When American troops left Vietnam in 1975, they left something behind: land mines. In the decades since then, more than 100,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance.

Dr. Ha Vo is trying to do something about it. The Vietnamese immigrant is a professor of biomedical engineering at Mercer University, and since 2009, he’s been taking students to his home country to fit amputees with specially designed prosthetics.

They’ve gone every summer, but they’ve just returned from a special winter excursion in which Mercer University President William Underwood came along, as did the effort’s principal donor, Chris Sheridan, the owner of a Macon construction company.

“They want to set up more clinics to help more people,” Vo said from Can Tho, a mid-sized city in southern Vietnam where he and his students fit 15 patients with prosthetics last week.

“Mr. Sheridan and President Underwood want thousands of patients fit per year ... two or three thousand, not just two or three hundred,” Vo said. His team has fit about 800 patients to far.

Vo is also trying to ramp up production of his prosthetics in Vietnam. Up to now, most of them have been fabricated in the United States.

Vo’s lightweight, inexpensive, universal design is key to the effort’s success, said Gary Wall, a Mercer pre-med student and president of the Mercer Prosthetics and Orthotics Club, who also accompanied Vo on the most recent trip.

Amputees in the United States can generally get a new prosthetic device every two to three years as their fit changes, Wall said, “but in developing countries like Vietnam, that’s just out of the question.” As the socket fit becomes less tight, a patient’s limb stump will start to slide, causing discomfort, open sores and, eventually, infection.

“What Dr. Vo has designed is a socket made from a plastic material that has a V-cut in the back, so essentially what that lets the socket do is flex, and the patients themselves can tighten or loosen it,” Wall said.

Many of the patients whom Wall has fitted recently have previously had no prosthetic and have been crawling or hopping through their lives.

“To see them crawl or be carried into your clinic and then walk out two to three hours later with the biggest smile on their face really is heartwarming,” he said.

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