Hundreds of Cambodian amputees with ill-fitting and heavy prosthetics — or none at all — are now able to move easier thanks to a Mercer On Mission team that traveled to the country this summer.
Mercer University students, faculty and staff, with support from Vietnamese and Cambodian colleagues, fitted patients with 549 legs and 62 hands over nearly three weeks in June, said Dr. Ha Van Vo, Distinguished University Professor and professor of biomedical engineering. In addition, the team treated about 800 orthopedic patients, he said.
Dr. Vo founded the Mercer On Mission prosthetics program in Vietnam in 2009. This was the second time the program went to Cambodia, and Dr. Vo expects to serve amputees in both countries going forward.
In Cambodia, “you see a lot of patients walking with no leg, some of them with crutches, some of them just hopping with a bamboo stick, and we see a lot of need,” he said.
Like in Vietnam, many Cambodians have lost limbs from unexploded land mines left after war. Others lost them to complications from diabetes, traffic accidents, snake bites and industrial accidents, said Dr. Edward O’Brien, professor of biomedical engineering, who leads the trip with Dr. Vo and retired faculty member Dr. Richard Kunz.
The Mercer On Mission team saw patients at a makeshift clinic in Preah Vihear Province, which borders Vietnam and Thailand to the north. Thirty-two students, primarily from the School of Engineering but also from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, went on the trip.
The program is made possible with support from the Sheridan Foundation, in-country contacts and government officials.
Working in pairs, students fitted patients throughout the trip. They trained prior to leaving Macon, which allowed them to work independently in Cambodia with the help of translators.
“We were able to be super hands on. Everyone got their own patients every day,” said Nyny Hoang, a rising sophomore double-majoring in biomedical engineering and Spanish. “We would do everything from the beginning to end for the fitting process, and then we had the professors there to assist us as well if we had any questions.”
Some patients traveled four to five hours to get to the clinic. A local physician group and the government provided large vans without seats to bring patients to the clinic. Sometimes, patients had to take carts across a river just to get to the vans. And sometimes, the vans broke down.
One man traveling from Siem Reap, about four hours away from the clinic, was the only patient out of an original group of 20 to come. Through a translator, he told Dr. Vo that the others did not believe the Mercer team could fit them in one day, so they didn’t want to waste their time.
“The patient’s wife told him, ‘You need to come. You never know.’ So, he’s the only one who came,” Dr. Vo recalled. “And he asked us, ‘Can you do that in a day?’ I said, ‘Yes. Not a day. Sometimes three hours, sometimes five hours, but we guarantee you walk out of here with the prothesis today.
“And his face changed from very skeptical to smiling and happy at that moment.”
Some patients would sleep outside the clinic, so they could be helped the next day.
“They wait for it because they need the prosthesis,” Dr. Vo said.
Some patients came to the clinic with an ill-fitting and heavy prothesis. Some had no prothesis due to cost or lack of access. Others struggled because of how their limbs had been amputated.
The Mercer On Mission team helped all these patients.
Hoang recalled a patient who walked with a crutch and didn’t have a prosthesis because one had never fit her well.
“When we finally fitted her with a prosthetic leg and she was walking around, she got so very excited,” Hoang said. “And then when she walked out, she walked out using her crutch. … But then halfway down the stairs, she started carrying it and said, ‘I don’t really need this anymore,’ and that was very exciting.”
She said the experience solidified her plans to pursue a career in rural and global health in the future.
Sarah Lane Lynch, a rising senior majoring in biomedical engineering, said one of her favorite moments from the trip was when she and her partner gave their first patient a pair of shoes.
“Another patient nearby had a translator ask me if everyone was getting new shoes,” Lynch recalled. “The smile on his face when I said yes was one of the most amazing things ever.
“It was so rewarding to see the impact we had on every patient.”
Lynch said the experience taught her not only how to fit a prothesis but how to listen and make adjustments for different patients.
“One of the most powerful things I learned, though, was how big of an impact we can have on other people’s lives,” she said. “I would definitely recommend to others to help people in whatever ways that they are able because it is so rewarding.”
Parth Patel, a rising sophomore majoring in neuroscience and on the pre-med track, said he enjoyed connecting with patients and seeing them walk after fitting them with a prosthesis.
“Some of the ones I had, they hadn’t walked for five, 10, 15, 20-plus years,” he said. “Even if they had to walk with a walker still, they’d still be so happy, bowing their heads to us and thanking us again and again.
“That was one of the big things that made the hard, long hours of the clinic still super enjoyable.”
Dr. Vo recognized University Minister Dr. Craig McMahan and his biomedical engineering research associates Bich Nguyen and Trung Le for helping make the trip a success.
“Dr. McMahan is an expert in fitting prosthetic hands, and he has joined and been an active member and leader for every Mercer On Mission prosthetics trip,” Dr. Vo said.
Nguyen and Le put significant effort into helping coordinate the trips and making irregular sockets, knee braces, patellar bearings, brace traps and ankle foot orthoses, Dr. Vo said. They also assisted faculty in teaching the courses.
The team had some down time during the trip to learn the culture and history of Cambodia, as well as tour temples, a museum and waterfall, among other sites.
“Seeing everything in person really does give you a different view on the world and how you should be striving to change it,” Patel said.