Mercer professor, students build artificial legs for amputees in Vietnam

When Dr. Ha Vo immigrated to America from Vietnam in 1990, many people in his native land were still suffering from losing a limb during the Vietnam War.

Though it’s been more than three decades since the war ended, many of those people are still dealing with daily life without all their arms and legs, and a new generation has lost limbs to land mines.

Vo, a professor of biomedical engineering and a research scientist at Mercer University, is trying to do something about it. Together with a group of 15 students, they have been manufacturing inexpensive artificial limbs they will take to Vietnam in June to help patients there suffering from amputations.

“There are 100,000 people at least” missing an arm or leg, said Vo, who recently was named the School of Engineering’s Teacher of the Year. “Every year, 2,000 people have an accident there and lose a limb, especially children.”

Many of the older people can’t get help from the government if they fought alongside U.S. forces during the war, Vo said.

Vo and his students set about to create a leg that can be built inexpensively but can still withstand the rigors of everyday use. Using materials such as aluminum, Velcro and corrosion-resistant steel, the students have hand-fashioned the parts to build artificial legs, which cost about $180 for people with below-the-knee amputations and about $200 for those with above-the-knee amputations.

By comparison, said Mercer senior Jack Lunday, similar-style legs cost about $2,000. The more complex C-Legs, which include computer chips that help regulate the artificial leg’s movement, cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

“These are also much lighter than what is produced locally,” said Lunday, a mechanical engineering major from Arkansas. “Our legs weigh under 10 pounds.”

Mercer is helping underwrite the cost of the legs and the trip to Vietnam as part of its Mercer On Mission project, which assists people in need through charitable endeavors.

Vo’s team also received a grant from the William J. Clinton Foundation as part of its Clinton Global Initiative University. President Clinton himself singled out the project for praise in a news release issued last week.

“This is a big deal personally to me, because when I was president we normalized relations with Vietnam ... and I have visited clinics where children who are losing their legs to this 40-year-old unexploded ordnance are treated,” Clinton said. “You cannot imagine the difference this makes in their lives. ... This is a very good thing that Mercer has done.”

The prosthetics the Mercer team makes aren’t customized, meaning they can be fitted to anyone with a few adjustments. Vo and the students will travel to Vietnam with 25 or 30 legs and make adjustments themselves for the patients who receive the legs.

They also will train physical therapists and prosthetics makers in that country how to create and use the legs, so that they can be built there.

Vo said he and his students will see how the legs perform so they can make any necessary refinements in the process, as well as test for metal fatigue. But he and Lunday said that if the legs prove as successful as they think they will be, it could mean a whole new style of manufacturing artificial legs inexpensively.

“(Vo) came up with these designs,” Lunday said. “They’re economically produced, have a universality and are lightweight. They are low-cost but professional in their appearance.”

Still, that doesn’t mean the Mercer group won’t face challenges in Vietnam. One major challenge, Vo said, is teaching people how to walk with an artificial leg who haven’t walked in 30 or more years.

Many of the people who have lost a leg get about by crawling, Vo said.

“That’s the problem that’s the most challenging,” he said. “Some of these people haven’t walked in 35 years. It’s difficult to do physical therapy because the muscles haven’t been used. We’re going to be training medical personnel and follow up with them next year.”

Lunday said the legs are being crafted for adults this time around, but they hope to expand their efforts to help children in future visits.

Vo credited his students with the program’s success, as well as Bill Campbell, who runs Mercer’s machine shop. He also gave credit to Hanger Prosthetics, which let him use its Macon facilities to help create the legs.

Lunday said he hopes the community will show an interest in the project.

People with experience in cutting metal could contribute greatly to the project, he said.

Knowing the project would impact so many lives was one of the reasons he has given so much time to the cause.

“I saw an opportunity to do a good mission project and show God’s love,” he said. “It’s a chance to help people walk. I don’t want anyone to suffer.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.