A joint effort

When people work together they can accomplish great things-as members of the Thai Industrialist Development Forum prove.They pooled good will, expertise, cash and spare parts to develop an artificial leg with a bending knee joint.The prosthetics are being given free to cash-strapped amputees

Chompoo Trakullertsathien

It looks like a jumble of discarded junk-a hodgepodge of screws, wire, stainless steel, aluminium, springs, and polyurethane. But once it's all fitted together in the right way, the items are transformed into artificial legs that can help hundreds of amputees walk again.

Moreover, these artificial limbs allow disabled people to bend their knee when they walk, sit cross-legged, and even kneel down.

Traditionally, artificial legs assembled in Thailand were designed for lower leg amputations-that is, below the knee. This style of prosthetic was not appropriate for those whose leg was amputated above the knee as the joint did not bend and walking naturally was impossible. But the knee of these new-style limbs does move-and that makes all the difference.

These prosthetics were the brainchild of the Thai Industrialist Development Forum (TIDF). Led by Woothiwong Toatong, 103 like-minded industrialists grouped together to support a project making artificial legs for hard-up amputees. They were spurred into action after seeing amputees struggling along on bamboo sticks.

Mr Woothiwong said: "We, the inventors, had the tools and some of the know-how. Many of these amputees served our country as teachers, soldiers, and monks. When they are handicapped, the government turns its back on them, so we should do whatever we can to help. Making artificial legs is one way to help."Last year, Mr Woothiwong and his team set about trying to produce cheap, but sturdy artificial legs.

"We had no idea how to make them. We started looking at what we had in our factories. Those days were filled with challenging experiments, as we tried to match different things together. Initially, we failed to come up with anything," Mr Woothiwong said.

To learn the basics of making artificial legs, he flew to Japan and visited a factory producing artificial legs. He also approached two doctors at Phra Mongkut Hospital-Dr Chusilpa Kunathai and Dr Saksom Kukietinan-and asked them for information and advice. "As beginners, it all seemed so difficult. But I believed we could achieve our goal if we tried our best," said Mr Woothiwong.

Then Mr Woothiwong's friend, Lerpong Ngarmpojjana, came up with what the team thought was a workable design. They experimented with polyurethane and it seemed to work.

Polyurethane is light, so amputees can walk more easily than with the heavier conventional prosthetics.

Tanin Ploymanee, a 27-year-old amputee, said: "It's difficult walking if the leg is heavy. It's exhausting. It's much easier with the Polyurethane ones."After experimenting with the design, Mr Woothiwong wrote to several hospitals asking if they would consider training his staff to fit limbs and help amputees learn to walk.

"But there was no reply. No assistance. And no advice," said Mr Woothiwong. Despite this the group were undeterred. Mr Woothiwong tested the leg with the help of an amputee. Things didn't go smoothly and there were problems with the artificial limb. So Mr Woothiwong again contacted the hospitals. "I visited one after the other-with the prosthetic. I tried to explain it was a free contribution. But no-one would listen to me," he said.

Finally, he went to Phra Mongkut Hospital in Bangkok and the leg was tested there. After a few adjustments, it was workable. A few months later, the team started providing free artificial legs to amputees in the provinces.

Mr Woothiwong, a graduate of Mahidol University, went to his hometown in Phetchaburi province first where he found more than 60 percent of the amputees had lost their leg in car accidents.

According to Mr Woothiwong, the TIDF's artificial leg is designed like ready-made trousers-wearers can try on what they think is their size. If it doesn't fit, the TIDF staff simply re-adjust it.

Aimed at allowing people to move as naturally as possible, some of the TIDF's artificial legs, which have been patented, have "muscles". So far, 40 different muscular artificial legs have been designed to match individual recipients. All the materials to make the legs come from Mr Woothiwong's factory-owner friends. Each supplies different materials every week.

"The rubber, screws, stainless steel sheets and plastic axes used in the manufacture of the legs, come from 30 different factories. Other factories donate money for our project. I really experience a sense of sharing among the members. Most are rich and I feel good they are willing to help the underprivileged," Mr Woothiwong said.

Local material means a cheaper product. The TIDF's artificial leg costs about 5,500 baht apiece, similar foreign-made prosthetics cost about 90,000 baht. And the TIDF's leg weighs only six kilogrammes, while many similar products weigh about 11 kilogrammes. The TIDF's artificial foot costs about 100 baht, compared with imported models which cost between 1,600 and 2,000 baht.

Mr Woothiwong has turned his factory into the artificial leg production unit, where poor people can go and ask for a free prosthetic. Three volunteers work at the factory assembling the legs and fitting them to the amputees. Hundreds of artificial legs and feet are there ready for people who need them. The artificial limb can be fitted in just two hours. Sometimes Mr Woothiwong takes a mobile unit upcountry for one or two days, and in this way 70 people have been fitted with artificial legs over the last six months.

"It's an immense joy seeing people smile, and their eyes shine, as they start to walk on two legs. Many amputees never dream they will be able to move around freely," Mr Woothiwong said. It is moments like these that keep Mr Woothiwong and his team devoting their time and energy to providing free services to rural amputees. And the thrill is a two-way thing. Many of the people helped are overwhelmed when they get a new leg.

"I lost my leg 10 years ago in a car accident. I couldn't afford to buy an artificial leg because it's so expensive.With the TIDF's artificial leg I could walk again," said 48-year-old Thanu Puempoonsuk, from Phetchaburi. Mr Woothiwong said his artificial legs have practical and aesthetic benefits. The wearer can move the leg back and forth because of the movable knee joint. Also the limbs are covered with skin-coloured foam rubber, allowing a more natural look.

TIDF's legs are built to be hardy. If they do break, they can be easily fixed. The foot section, however, may need to be replaced once in a while. Mr Woothiwong said he has no plan to stop producing the artificial legs. And efforts to invent an even better prosthetic continue. Mr Woothiwong believes there are thousands of amputees who need a prosthetic, but can't get one. To help reduce his workload, Mr Woothiwong is offering free training to those who want to learn how to make and fit artificial legs, so they can help other people.

"I need more volunteers and support from well-established networks across the country to help produce limbs and make contact with poor amputees. Together we can work to ease their suffering."u'We Care" is a weekly series honouring people who believe in giving. You can show you care by supporting the projects featured here each week. You can also let us know about people who selflessly help others so we can honour them in these pages. Fax "We Care" on 240-3666, or call 240-3700 ext 3208 or 3212. Alternatively email sanitsuda@bang-kokpost.net

Info fordonations:

The Thai Industrialist Development Forum does not need cash-what it does need is volunteers. Anyone interested in learning the techniques of making and fitting the artificial leg can attend free courses at Mr Woothiwong's factory.

*Name of Organisation: The Thai Industrialist Development Forumu

Contact Person: Woothiwong Toatong

Address: 110/108 Ekachai-Bangbon Road, Bangkhuntien, Bangkok, 10150

Tel: 899-6372-5, 416-0308-9

Fax: 899-6371

March 30, 1999

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