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 from a Macon-based foundation.
Just before Christmas, 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. Over the 10 days they were in Vietnam they also fitted more than 100 patients with new prosthetics.
Dr. Vo immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1990, and his idea for the prosthetics project came from seeing countless amputees struggle to have productive lives after losing limbs due to unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War.
On this most recent trip, the group fit 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 project began. Dr. McMahan said that the group has been able to speed up the fitting process due to Dr. Vo's efforts to revise and refine the prosthetic design to make it more functional, durable and easier to fit. The prosthetics are lightweight, inexpensive and have a patented universal socket that makes them easier to adjust in the field.
“We continue to see very poor amputees come into our clinics hobbling on broken prosthetics that are 40 years old or leaning on homemade crutches, and in a few hours we see them walk home without any pain or the slightest sign of a limp. There really is no way to describe what that is like for them and for us,” Dr. McMahan said.
“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.
“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,” Wall said.
The short-term goal of the project 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, the University has had discussions with the United Nations and other international agencies about expanding this program into other 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.
For more information about Mercer On Mission, visit