Bears on a mission: Odom, Condra join medical mission to Vietnam

J.T. Odom and Stacey Condra are on the mother of all road trips.

A long bus ride to Buies Creek, N.C., or DeLand, Fla., highlighted their spring travels as members of Mercer’s baseball and softball teams.

Now, they are in Vietnam.

Odom, a relief pitcher on Mercer’s baseball team, and Condra, the softball team’s starting center fielder, are part of a group of 15 Mercer students who have joined Dr. Ha Vo of Mercer’s engineering school on a 15-day trip to the country on a mission of mercy.

Vo, a professor of biomedical engineering and research scientist at Mercer, has spearheaded a movement to build and provide artificial limbs, and do so inexpensively, for the Vietnamese.

He and Mercer students have created such a leg, and they’ll take the job a little further by traveling more than 9,000 miles to make adjustments, train therapists and help victims who in some cases haven’t walked normally for decades learn to do so.

And two Mercer athletes are involved.

“The people who are going to be coming to the clinic are going to be poor,” Odom said. “Some of the people we’re going to be putting prosthetic legs on have been dragging themselves around the streets since they lost their legs.”

Two Mercer groups left last week on the 20-hour flight, Condra and Odom departing Thursday for what will be quite a different “What I did this summer” report than their classmates and teammates.

“This is the first trip to Vietnam, this is the first to take prosthetic legs,” said graduate student Bo Broadwater, part of the design team. “There have been a lot of long nights doing a lot of long calculations.”

The project involves prosthetics only for adults, so many victims haven’t been ambulatory since the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975. More than six million people died, and so violent was the conflict that Vietnam still struggles to recover economically, socially and in its infrastructure.

Having a second usable limb for the first time in perhaps 30 or more years is a life change most never expected.

“I think it will all be a really big ‘wow’ factor,” Condra said. “And we’re not just fitting prosthetics, we’ll be doing clinical work for 600 people. I think that will be a really big ‘wow’ factor, too.

“I think that it will be very emotional. I think you’re going to have some people who will kind of resist it, and there are going to be people that want it. The people that want it is what we’re looking for.”

Approximately 30 prosthetics will be attached, a drop in the bucket compared to the 100,000 or so in the country who are missing an arm or leg, but certainly an improvement for those who will get one.

Vo emigrated from Vietnam almost 20 years ago, and the engineering school’s teacher of the year is will serve as a translator along with three Vietnamese Mercer students.

The trip is part of the school’s Mercer On Mission program, which combines studying abroad with service to humanity. It covers trips to Brazil, Greece, Guatemala and Kenya, among other countries.

This particular venture received a grant from The William J. Clinton Foundation, and President Clinton applauded the program in February. Mercer also helps fund the trips with aid from donations.

Condra became aware of the program in the spring of 2008. Mercer on Mission director and university minister Craig McMahan was at a Mercer softball game when Condra took a ball to the mouth and lost a tooth. Condra’s father was at the game and chatted with McMahan, who told him about the program.

Condra talked to Odom about it in the fall, and it piqued his interest. Both are engineering majors with different goals. Condra, whose sister Crystal graduated from Mercer with an engineering degree and whose father is a mechanical engineer, is leaning toward hospital administration.


“I like to fix stuff,” he said. “I want to design things and make them better.”

This is certainly such a program.

The legs cost about $200, about 1/10th of the cost of a more detailed and substantive prosthetic. The legs won’t have computer chips or deal with retraining muscles, but are expected to survive normal usage.

They will be fitted on site to each recipient by the Mercer group, which will also work with local therapists, as well as companies, to help improve manufacturing of the legs in Vietnam.

Condra, who attended North Gwinnett, claims a trip to Mexico as the lone example of her international travel. Odom, who is from Camden County but attended high school in Jacksonville, Fla., spent a few weeks visiting relatives in Germany when he was 12.

They will be very much in an extremely different part of the world, but thoughts of home won’t be far away.

“I’m bringing a glove and a ball,” Odom said. “She’s going to have to bring hers, because that’s who I’m throwing with.”