Mercer University officials are hoping to massively expand a program that addresses a lingering tragedy of the Vietnam War.
When American troops left Vietnam in 1975, they left something behind: landmines. In the decades since, more than a hundred thousand civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance.
Dr. Ha Vo is trying to do something about it. The Vietnamese immigrant is a professor of biomedical engineering at Mercer University in Macon, and since 2009, he's been taking students to his home country to fit amputees with specially designed prosthetics.
They've gone every summer, but they've just returned from a special winter excursion in which Mercer University President William Underwood came along, as did the effort's principal donor, Macon construction magnate Chris Sheridan.
"They want to set up more clinics, to help more people," Vo said from Cần Thơ, a mid-sized city in southern Vietnam where he and his students fit 15 patients with prosthetics last week.
"Mr. Sheridan and President Underwood want thousands of patients fit per year...two or three thousand, not just two or three hundred," Vo said. His team has fit about 800 patients to far.
Vo is also trying to ramp up local production of his prosthetic in Vietnam, most of which have been fabricated in the United States up to this point, he said.
Vo's lightweight, inexpensive, universal design is key to the effort's success, said Gary Wall, a Mercer pre-med student and president of the Mercer Prosthetics and Orthotics Club who accompanied Vo on this most recent Vietnam trip.
Amputees in the United States can generally get a new prosthetic every two to three years as their fit changes, Wall said, "but in developing countries like Vietnam, that's just out of the question." As the socket fit becomes less tight, a patient's limb stump will start to slide, causing discomfort, open sores, and eventually infection, he said.
"What Dr. Vo has designed is a socket made from a plastic material that has a V-cut in the back, so essentially what that lets the socket do is flex, and the patient themselves can tighten or loosen it," Wall said.
Many of the patients Wall has personally fitted in recent days have previously had no prosthetic and have literally been crawling or hopping through their lives, he said. "To see them crawl or be carried into your clinic and then walk out two to three hours later with the biggest smile on their face really is heartwarming."