Mercer prosthetics group recounts work in Vietnam

During a three week trip this summer to Vietnam, Mercer University professor Dr. Ha Van Vo spent the journey worrying that the low-cost prosthetic limbs developed at the university would not help the amputees.

Vo and Mercer engineering students developed above and below the knee prosthetics with universal sockets to fit over amputated legs and cost less than $200 to create.

“My God, please help me make it work,” Vo recalled thinking during a presentation Wednesday afternoon at Mercer.

Despite his apprehension, he along with 14 students on the trip, sponsored by Mercer On Mission, fitted 35 people for prosthetics and cast 27 people for later fittings as part of a three-year initiative.

Beyond the amputees, the group treated about 1,000 patients for ailments such as back problems, arthritis and sprained ligaments.

Vo, himself a native of Vietnam, helped coordinate the trip as a way to give back to those in his homeland who had lost limbs and lived in pain, he said.

The group visited the cities of Phung Hiep and Chau Doc, which has the largest number of amputees in the country.

The universal design allows the prosthetics to be crafted inexpensively and can be adjusted to suit the needs of the individual, Vo said.

The low-cost prosthetics are especially important for the 18 million amputees around the world, especially for the more than 80 percent of those who live in developing countries. Of that number, more than 100,000 live in Vietnam.

After the amputees were fitted with the prosthetics, they tested them out while holding on to parallel bars, said Leighton Elliot, a biomedical engineering senior. If the amputees fell over or had a bad gait, the prosthetics were adjusted.

“Prosthetics is the kind of business where you do little and test a little,” said Bo Broadwater, a biomedical engineer senior. “There is a lot of adjusting.”

More than 100 people a day waited to see the students, biomedical engineer senior A.C. Davis said. Some waited all day to be seen, she said, and some had to return the next day.

There, Vo and the students checked for vital signs such as blood pressure, height and weight. They also tried to address present ailments, used X-rays and range of motion tests to treat health-related issues and distributed medication.

Stacey Condra, a senior industrial engineering student, described a surgery she participated in, in which the team had to remove a cyst on a woman’s hip. “We scrubbed up, even though we’d never done that before,” Condra said.

Because the stitching materials they were provided with were too thin, the woman’s stitches opened up again and she had to return the next day. As the surgery took place, the team was surrounded by spectators as young as 8 years old.

“They seemed really interested, so why not let them be a part of that?” Condra said.

Biomedical engineer senior Jessica Powell said limited time and the language barrier were challenges to treating the patients. The students learned how to say short phrases in preparation for the trip and used visual aids and interpreters to explain diagrams to patients.

Vo plans to return with a group to Vietnam in 2010 with the goal of bringing 100 universal sockets. He also plans to expand the program to Thailand and India.

Last spring, the students held a Thai Night food fundraiser, which helped them raise $1,000 for rice and noodles for 100 households.

The university is holding the event again Oct. 28 from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the university’s Religious Life Center. Admission for students and children is $5 and $10 for faculty and adults.

Vo will be cooking the food for the event.

“Not only is (Vo) a great doctor and engineer, he’s also a great chef,” said Craig McMahan, the university minister and director of Mercer On Mission.

Vo said the group would need to raise about $10,000 for 100 prosthetics and $25,000 to build a manufacturing cell for the prosthetics on campus. Currently, the prosthetics are manufactured at Hanger’s Prosthetics in Macon and Boland Prosthetics in Warner Robins.

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.