Mercer On Mission

Prosthetics Program Progressing to Serve Thousands of Vietnamese Amputees

Over the last five years, almost 1,000 Vietnamese have received new prosthetic legs through a Mercer On Mission program led by biomedical engineering professor Dr. Ha Van Vo. That number is about to grow exponentially, thanks to new partnerships and funding.

Just before Christmas 2013, Dr. Vo led a group that included Mercer President William D. Underwood, Dean of Chapel and University Minister Craig McMahan, Chris R. Sheridan, president of Chris R. Sheridan & Co. General Contractors, and four Mercer students to Vietnam to explore opportunities to set up a manufacturing facility in the Southeast Asian country that would greatly expand production of the prosthetics.

During the 10 days they were in Vietnam, they also fitted a total of 135 patients with leg prosthetics – 22 above-knee prosthetics and 113 below-knee prosthetics. They worked in three locations: Ho Chi Minh City, Can Tho and Phung Heip.

 “Along with fitting the prosthetics, we met with our partners in Vietnam: Father Vincent of Caritas in Ho Chi Minh City and Dr. Nguyen Lap, director of the Can Tho Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center,” said Dr. McMahan, who serves as director of Mercer On Mission. “Both of these partners have offered us space in which to house our prosthetic clinic.”

All told, more than 900 patients have been fitted with the low-cost, high-quality prosthetic since the program began in 2009. Dr. McMahan said that the group has been able to speed up the fitting process because of Dr. Vo’s efforts to revise and refine the prosthetic design to make it more functional, durable and easier to fit.

“Many of the patients we see have lost all hope. Society has shunned them because of their disability. To further their pain, their economic situation prevents them from receiving prosthetic care, which further limits their ability to find a job, provide for their family and live a normal life,” said Gary Wall, a senior global health major from Augusta and president of the Mercer Prosthetics and Orthotics Club, who made his third trip to Vietnam with Mercer On Mission in December 2013.

“Seeing patients, who have not walked for sometimes 10 or more years, walk out of our clinic in as little as two hours is an indescribable experience. This trip was truly a unique opportunity and is a testament to the commitment to service displayed by both the faculty and students of Mercer University, as well as the local community that continues to support our activities.”

Discipline, Determination – and Above All, Compassion

The seeds of this program were planted during the childhood of Dr. Vo, the son of Ngoc Van Vo, a U.S.-trained non-commissioned officer in the army of the Republic of Vietnam. Growing up, Dr. Vo experienced many of the horrors of the Vietnam War, including seeing the ravaging consequences of the landmines that the war left behind throughout the countryside of South Vietnam. An impressionable young boy’s psyche absorbed these images and the daily reality of suffering – physical, social, emotional and economic – they imposed. He determined that one day he would do something to help the hundreds of amputees that he saw growing up.

When the fall of Saigon came in April of 1975, Ngoc Van Vo gathered his wife and children and headed for the evacuation point in Saigon to be airlifted out. In total, 7,000 American and Vietnamese soldiers, administrators and citizens were successfully evacuated from Saigon, but Ngoc Van Vo and his family were not among them. Driving toward the evacuation point, he turned his vehicle around and went toward the home of his parents. He feared for their lives if they were left behind. This selfless act of compassion, putting aside personal advantage for the wellbeing of others, passed from father to son and would emerge in Dr. Vo in the years ahead.

Dr. Ha Van Vo fits a Universal Socket prosthetic to an amputee in Vietnam

Remaining in Vietnam was difficult. Dr. Vo had to learn martial arts to protect his younger brother, Daniel, who was an abandoned G.I. baby that his father and mother took in. Because of Daniel’s obvious American features, the family was ostracized and threatened. In school, Dr. Vo’s teachers would not give him textbooks. In order to prepare his assignments, he had to borrow books at night from his classmates. He was disciplined and determined in his education, devouring every crumb of learning he could get.

He and his family eventually made it out of Vietnam and to America. When he arrived in the U.S. in 1990, Dr. Vo began working as a bus boy in a restaurant. He asked the owner if he could help out in the kitchen after his shift so that he could learn how to cook. A quick learner, Dr. Vo eventually became a cook, though his heart was not in it. He ultimately put himself through college, and then began to pursue a medical education, never forgetting his determination to help his people. He completed his studies and earned degrees in medicine, podiatric medicine and surgery, manufacturing engineering and biomedical engineering. He was academically prepared to help the men, women and children whose legs had been torn off by landmines.

Dr. Vo was hired by Mercer in 2005 as an assistant professor of biomedical engineering. Also joining the faculty that year was Dr. McMahan, the University minister and dean of Chapel. The two men became friends immediately. After President Underwood asked Dr. McMahan in March of 2006 to initiate an international service-learning program for undergraduate students, Dr. McMahan learned of Dr. Vo’s interest in designing and providing prosthetic legs for impoverished amputees in his native Vietnam.

Through many conversations, the two men developed a plan to include a prosthetics program in Vietnam under the umbrella of Mercer On Mission, which had launched in 2007. Dr. Vo produced a prototype that he called the Universal Socket Prosthetic. The uniqueness of this prosthetic was its socket. Traditional prosthetic sockets are made of a hard, carbon-fiber material that is molded into a rigid shell, which usually takes several weeks to produce. Once it is finished, the patient has a durable, custom-fit socket. The problem, however, is that the size and contours of the amputee’s stump change over time because of the atrophication of the muscles and soft tissues in the stump. Dr. Vo designed a socket system that allowed the circumference of the socket to be adjustable. Made out of malleable plastic, the Universal Socket is rigid enough to offer support and durability, yet flexible enough to allow for daily adjustment. Perhaps the greatest advantage of this prosthetic was its price point. Traditional below-the-knee prosthetic legs cost between $8,000 and $10,000, while the Universal Socket Prosthetic, made in Mercer’s on-campus lab, costs about $85 in materials. This allows the University to distribute the prosthetics without any charge.

‘Dream Has Become Reality’

The short-term goal of the program – which received special recognition from the Clinton Global Initiative University in 2009 – is to increase production to 2,000 prosthetics a year. The long-term goal is to get to a point where each of the estimated 100,000 amputees in the country can be fitted. Additionally, discussions have taken place with the United Nations and other international agencies about expanding into other countries.

This past year, Macon philanthropist Sheridan provided funding for production to begin approaching the aforementioned goals. The University is working to establish what is envisioned as a non-profit business entity in Vietnam that will be able to address the widespread need for prosthetics. Once the business template is established, it can be expanded to other regions and countries.

“I am especially delighted that President Underwood and Chris Sheridan, whose family foundation has made a $500,000 commitment to this initiative, were able to join us on this trip. They have each been extraordinary supporters of this program, and they both were quick to pick up the fitting process. Perhaps most importantly, they were able to see first-hand the impact that this program is making on the lives of the amputees that we serve and on the lives of our students. I really couldn’t be more pleased and proud of what Mercer is doing in Vietnam,” Dr. McMahan said.

“My dream has come true,” said Dr. Vo. “That dream has become reality as my closest friend, Dr. McMahan, and I have worked to change the lives of the needy and underprivileged amputees in Vietnam. After five years of fitting, I have seen almost 1,000 disabled Vietnamese amputees have the ability to walk again. ‘You have brought my life back,’ said an amputee in Phung Hiep, who was fitted by a Mercer On Mission prosthetic team in 2009. This was the most rewarding and happiest moment of my life.

“Without support from Mercer University and the Sheridan Family Foundation, it would have been difficult for this dream to ever come true. I am grateful for the wonderful vision and guidance from President Underwood, and the tremendously generous financial support from Mr. Sheridan and the Sheridan Family Foundation.”

Mercer On Mission began in 2007 by sending 38 students to service sites in Brazil, Guatemala and Kenya. Those numbers have steadily increased over the past six years, up to 11 different sites and 144 students in 2013. There is no better measure of Mercer’s commitment to the parallel goals of academic instruction, cultural immersion, meaningful service and spiritual reflection than the proverbial bottom line. The University, through grants and donations, pays for all of the travel expenses for each participating student and faculty member, which totaled over $800,000 last year alone.

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