Stand Easy

Thai businessmen are making prosthetics to be given away free. It's a charitable act that's helping people around the world

By Rodney Tasker/BANGKOK

Issue cover-dated October 18, 2001

FOR NEARLY THREE years Thai businessman Woothiwong Toatong has been manufacturing lightweight, artificial limbs and giving them away free.

Woothiwong owns a machinery-importing company in Bangkok. He is also president of the Thai Industrial Development Forum, which makes prosthetics primarily from lightweight polyurethane, rather than from resin-based plastics.

The 3,500 members of the TIDF gave away their first free leg in December 1998 to a Thai soldier who had stepped on a landmine on the Cambodian border. Since then, more than 250 prosthetics have been fitted free onto amputees worldwide.

One satisfied foreign amputee is Rekha Shah, from Essex, England, who wrote Woothiwong: "I will be grateful if you can please make two pairs of boots for me to use with my amputated foot . . . The boots will help me to walk with ease."

Woothiwong, 53, gladly gave Shah her boots, made of soft polyurethane and leather. And she travelled to Thailand to collect them. He has dealt with similar requests from Brazil, Pakistan, Malaysia, China and South Africa, but handles mainly Thai patients.

The early days, though, were frustrating. "We wrote to various government organizations saying we were willing to donate parts to produce limbs, but they thought we were crazy," Woothiwong recalls. Hospitals they approached thought the group was pushing a commercial deal, or wanted joint projects, he says.

So the group had to go it alone, making parts for the limbs in some of its 103 factories. Apart from polyurethane, which Woothiwong says makes the legs lighter and more flexible than others, the factories give other parts for the prosthetics, including plastics, rubber, screws, aluminium and even car-suspension springs. Then the final legs are moulded in a few minutes at Woothiwong's plant on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Hard polyurethane, normally used for such things as vehicle steering wheels, is used for the outer part of the leg. A softer, foamy mixture, like that used for car seats, provides the lining--as it does with many resin-based products.

Imported artificial limbs in Thailand cost around 80,000 baht ($1,790) each. The TIDF's manufacture theirs for just 4,500 baht.

Richard Curby, a leading prosthetist and director of Sydney's Advanced Prosthetic Centre says he hasn't heard of a pure polyurethane leg before, but applauds the project. "If the leg they produce is functional, and they are giving it away free, they are doing a good job," he says.

Boonluang Srisaeng, a 30-year-old Thai television technician born with a crippled right leg, certainly thinks so. "I'm very happy," he grins after his first leg is fitted. "It's like starting a new life . . . Now I will be able to do my job less painfully." Boonlunang went to Woothiwong's plant for his limb, but TIDF members also travel around the country delivering legs.

Why did the industrialists choose such an unlikely project? "We thought we were just a group of small factories, but we had a chance to make a contribution to the country," says Woothiwong. He came up with the idea after watching TV on a visit to Tokyo and seeing the smile on the face of a Thai girl being given an artificial leg. Before this project, the TIDF produced Braille sheets and he says they gave away 7,000 sets of white aluminium sticks for the blind.

Now, the group is working on a new project. This year, it has given 200 stainless-steel walking sticks to elderly Thai people.

Meanwhile, Woothiwong says it's not just artificial legs going free. He wants to pass on the group's technology free too. "I'm willing to give the knowledge to anyone who wants it."

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