Life and limb

On the heels of its success in Thailand, the Thai Industrialist Development Forum is helping poor amputees in other countries

Story And Pictures By Chompoo Trakullertsathien

During a short break in training, Woothiwong Toatong, the director of the Thai Industrialist Development Forum, talks with one of the amputees _ 50-year-old Yang Yong whose legs were amputated because of a train accident.

On October 29, Li Jing Guang's dream came true-to the sound of applause echoing in Huaxia Technical High School-as he gradually placed his feet upon the floor. He tried to balance himself and stand upright. Eventually, he did.

His first step brought smiles and delight to many people who witnessed this memorable event.

Overwhelmed, Li Jing Guang's grandfather and grandmother dashed to their grandson and burst into tears after waiting patiently for two days while he had practiced. Many approached the 14-year-old amputee and tapped gently on his shoulder as a way to boost his morale.

Other amputees, queuing up for their turn at walking, looked excited and hopeful.

Though learning how to walk is part of most every child's regular development, Li Jing Guang lost his legs-and his mother-in a train accident when he was two years old. All he has ever been able to do in the years since is move around on his knees.

'We were extremely anguished when we saw our grandson moving around. If possible, we would have given him our legs in order to ease his pain. But we couldn't. We also couldn't afford expensive artificial legs," said 60-year-old Ja La Shie, Li Jing Guang's grandmother, whose love for her grandson is evident.

Born into a poor family, prosthetic devices were out of the question. All that could be done to help the boy move around was provide pants with leather-reinforced knees. Still, long distances were out of the question.

His grandfather served as Li Jing Guang's "functional legs." It was a common scene for his Kunming neighbors to spot the 64-year-old Lee Yong Kuo carrying his 58-kilogramme grandson on his back.

"I carried him on my back when he went to school. The trip took about 20 minutes. Though it was exhaustion, I felt good to help him. It helped ease his distress. We felt so sorry that couldn't buy him prosthetics, but we always hoped we could someday."

Thanks to the Thai Industrialist Development Forum (TIDF), that hope became a reality.

Li Jing Guang says that although the accident left scars on both his mind and body, the artificial legs provided by the TIDF team have helped in a small way to heal his long-term agony.

"I'm very glad to have a chance to walk like normal people. I didn't like the way some people looked at me-like I was a freak. But now I'm not. And I am so thankful to those who provided my artificial legs."

Nine other amputees were given new leases of life.

"When I heard from the doctor that one of my legs needed to be amputated, I was shocked. I tried to commit suicide several times. I was so disheartened, but my parents told me that obstacles and pain were part of life. They encouraged me and said I could be useful to society. Eventually, I survived," recalled 22-year-old Yang Chang Chiew, a senior student at Huaxia Vocational High School, a school for the disabled. The young man lost his right leg in car accident in 1991.

"And now I'm very happy. My new leg can help me do many things and I can go everywhere. I can depend on myself."

In an effort to provide artificial legs to the poor, the TIDF joined forces with Project Grace, organised by Huaxia Vocational High School. "The purpose of this project is to teach the staff of Project Grace how to manufacture artificial legs for amputees in Yunnan province," said Woothiwong Toatong, president of the Thai Industrialist Forum.

Covering the limbs with skin-coloured foam rubber makes them look more natural.

Nine skilled trainers from the TIDF flew to Kunming recently to help train 10 disabled people who will be later employed to run a small prosthetic factory in Yunnan province. They also trained 10 Project Grace staff and volunteers working in rural and remote areas.

"These groups will manufacture artificial legs for the poor in Yunnan province," said Bill Withers, director of the Project Grace.

Mr Withers estimates there are about two million disabled living in Yunnan province and somewhere between 225,000 and 300,000 who need artificial limbs.

"But most are poor amputees who can't afford expensive prosthetics," said Mr Withers.

Accessing rehabilitation services provided in large cities is also difficult for these poverty-stricken people.

"They live in remote areas. They have to make a long, arduous journey through the mountains to get an artificial limb," he said.

According to Mr Withers, there is only one prosthetic factory in Yunnan province.

"To our knowledge this factory provides prosthetic devices and artificial legs, arms, and hands, to those who can travel to the factory and buy them. One artificial limb costs about 5,000 baht," he said.

In an attempt to provide prosthetics to cash-strapped amputees in Yunnan province, Mr Withers sought help from the TIDF team after learning about their efforts to provide free artificial legs to disabled people in Thailand.

"We heard that these Thai businessmen has pooled their good will, cash, and supplies, to develop artificial legs and provide them to poor amputees. With no tools and know-how, we needed their help and they were willing to visit and teach us the techniques. They also provided all materials necessary for training and demonstration. We are grateful to them."

Mr Woothiwong said many people warned him to keep the techniques secret and not to give them away to foreigners. But he saw things in a different light.

"I don't worry about giving our know-how to the Project Grace staff. Our team would like to help the amputees not only in Thailand but in other countries as well. If we keep the knowledge to ourselves, we will be able to only help a few groups of disabled people."

And he added, "We need like-minded people to join our team."

Bill Withers, director of Project Grace, moulds an artificial leg for one of the amputees.

The TIDF members spent four days, from dusk till dawn, training the Project Grace staff as well as demonstrating all procedures and techniques used for the making of the artifical limbs.

The Project Grace staff located ten recipients in Kunming and brought them to the training centre.

One small room in the school was turned into a temporary workshop where the two teams worked to achieve their goal.

The amputees waited patiently and excitedly for the TIDF trainers to measure and design their fitted artificial legs. Of the ten, three recipients were double-leg amputees.

The TIDF artificial limbs are designed differently from the traditional ones assembled in Thailand. They are fashioned for upper leg amputations, that is, for those whose legs were cut above the knee. It took the TIDF team about one year to make and develop the prosthetic.

"Our artificial limbs were produced to help amputees whose legs were cut above the knee. This style of prosthetic allows the disabled to bend their knees, sit cross-legged and to kneel down," explained Chung Sae-U, 46, who designed the artificial legs.

"Besides, the wearer can move their legs back and forth because of the movable knee joint. And the amputees are able to walk easily and naturally."

To allow the amputees to walk more easily, light-weight materials-polyurethane and polyethylene-are used to create the prosthetics.

"Traditional artificial legs are heavier. This means the amputees have to exercise more enery. It's somewhat exhausting," Mr Chung said.

According to Mr Woothiwong, the TIDF-made prosthetic can be made and fitted in just two hours. This allows the TIDF staff to assemble many artificial legs a day.

"The amputees can try on and chose any size fitted to them. If the limb does not fit, it can be easily adjusted."

On the second day of the training session, some amputees got their new legs. A sense of happiness filled the air and faces were brightened with smiles. The sound of laughing from the recipients and the volunteers was heard intermittently during the walking practice.

Twenty-two-year-old Yang Chang Chiew came back to the workshop in the evening with new shoes after getting an artificial leg in the morning.

"Previously, I wore only one shoe. But now I have two legs so I bought new shoes," he said, joining the other amputees in their walking practice.

Bi De Guo, 31, who looked hopeless and sorrowful during the first two days, smiled for the first time. He had lost his legs in a train accident. Once fitted with new ones, he practiced walking so much he was told to take a rest.

"I have been waiting for 17 years to be able to walk around again. And now I can."

Li Jing Guang and Bi De Guo used to walk on their knees. Thanks to the Thai Industrialist Development Forum's artificial legs, these two amputees can walk freely again.

Yang Yong, 50, cheerfully drew laughs from the onlookers. After being fitted with a suitable artificial leg, he tried to run and jump across parallel bars.

"I lost my leg in a train accident. I have been waiting for a new leg for 26 years. I was trapped in such a long, lost period. But now I am a new person and I would like to do many more things, like running and jumping," he said.

The work brought joy to the Thai team.

"I was so excited learning that I would have a chance to visit Yunnan province and provide artificial legs to disabled Chinese people. It was an immense joy seeing the amputees smile when they were able to walk again. My exhaustion evaporated when I saw they could stand and walk around the room," said 29-year-old trainer Satravuth Homruen, who was trained by Mr Woothiwong.

After completing the training course, Mr Withers and the Project Grace volunteers plan to gather information on the amputees in Yunnan province to provide help for them.

"It is our purpose to provide low cost but high quality artificial legs to the recipients, free of charge. Our international community development teams working in the towns and village areas of Yunnan province are responsible for helping us locate the amputees and then deliver the adjusted prosthetics to the disabled," Mr Withers said.

"Our staff learned many new things which will be beneficial to Chinese amputees. It's a good feeling for people to do good things together."

As for the Thai Industrialist Development Forum, the training programme helped cultivate the sense of sharing among people of different races. In the near future, the TIDF staff plan to visit Laos and distribute prosthetics to Laotian amputees.

Mr Woothiwong said, "Our help was beyond any frontier. When we give something to others, we expect nothing back except happiness, which also makes us happy. Giving is the real source of happiness."

 

Info for donations:

- Name: Thai Industrialist Development Forum,

- Contact person: Woothiwong Taotong

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

- Tel: 899-6372

- Fax: 899-6371

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