JONESBORO, Georgia — Vietnam is home to 100,000 amputees. Additionally, the leftover two million unexploded mines and ordinances after the Vietnam War continue to take the limbs of thousands of men, women and children annually. Dr. Ha Van Vo, a biomedical engineering professor at Mercer University, set out to develop prosthetics for these amputees with the help of the institution.
About Dr. Vo
Dr. Vo, the son of a U.S.-trained army officer in the Republic of Vietnam, was young when he “experienced many of the horrors of the Vietnam War.” After moving to the U.S. in 1990, he worked first as a busboy and after as a cook to pay for college, obtaining degrees in manufacturing, engineering, biomedical engineering and podiatric medicine and surgery. After joining the Mercer University staff in 2005, Dr. Vo worked with Dr. Craig McMahan, Dean of Chapel and University Minister, for the next two years to develop a program to distribute prosthetics in Vietnam.
The initiative falls under Mercer on Mission, a study abroad and service-learning program. Dr. Vo developed the Universal Socket Prosthetic, a lower-cost prosthetic with greater durability, adjustability and custom fit. Considering that many of the prosthetics will benefit laborers, Dr. Vo wanted to create a prosthetic that fulfilled the needs of Vietnam’s workers. While most leg prosthetics usually cost between $8,000 to $10,000, the price of the Universal Socket Prosthetic is less than $250.
Mercer on Mission
Mercer on Mission works in four clinics across Vietnam, focused on training local medical professionals to perform maintenance on and fit prosthetics while Dr. Vo is absent. Engineering student Caleb Thompson said to The Borgen Project in an interview that he made prosthetics and performed physical therapy while spending a month in Vietnam. The patients ranged from “pediatric patients who were eight or nine to patients who were 80 years old.” Thompson spoke about one patient who had an inefficient prosthetic that cut him, leading to the patient develop a massive wound on his leg. Dr. Vo closed the wound while Thompson and a friend made the patient a new prosthetic designed to avoid any further problems.
Thompson estimates that the team treated 1,300 patients while they were there, roughly 100 people a day. Operating from a clinic in Southern Vietnam, Thompson says people would make “24-hour journeys” to reach the clinic. In addition to fitting people for prosthetics, the team would pay patients two or three days of lost wages. Engineering student Tien Tran, who was born in Vietnam, expressed to The Borgen Project in an interview that he enjoyed helping the people of Vietnam because he felt like he was giving back to the community. Tran liked developing prosthetics, saying there was good energy in the clinic that made him want to keep working.
Results of Work
The Vietnamese government followed up with 177 people who had used the Universal Socket Prosthetic for up to three years. Around 82% of people surveyed “reported that they wore the prosthetic leg for more than eight hours per day” while 14% of people could not use it due to “vascular problems” unrelated to the prosthetic. Donations from the Sheridan Foundation, Macon Rotary Club and Sheridan Construction allowed Mercer University to expand its work in Vietnam.
The university has developed prosthetics for more than 10,000 Vietnamese amputees and can accept up to 3,200 patients a year. Much of the work in Vietnam requires two legs, so fitting people with leg prosthetics energizes the economy by enabling amputees to work; training creates new jobs for fitters and manufacturers. International agencies such as the United Nations have contacted the university about extending this outreach to other countries. The Clinton Global Initiative also recognized the university’s work as a unique way to fight a global issue.
On June 25, 2015, the Vietnamese government acknowledged Mercer’s work developing prosthetics in Vietnam, and granted the program a Certificate of Operation. The certificate waives fees and taxes, provides banking privileges and allows for more expensive purchases, including a vehicle that fitters can use to travel between different clinics.
Work Beyond Vietnam
Mercer on Mission’s work goes beyond Vietnam. In recent years, the program has taken students to South Korea to teach refugee children robotics and English while focusing on 3D modeling projects for the blind. In Rwanda, Mercer business students advised 48 Rwandan entrepreneurs on how to improve their business practices, many of whom were victims of the 1994 genocide. The program also took students to Guinea to teach English and French to orphans at the Home of Hope. These stories are only a few examples of the work Mercer University is doing on a global scale.
Mercer University’s work in Vietnam shows that, through determination, people can create positive social change. According to Thompson, the programs are accessible to all students, recommending the opportunity to “anybody who wants to help people.” When colleges get involved in helping the less fortunate, students rise to help those in need.
– Solomon Simpson