Giving the gift of walking

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Michael Abraham

Most of us know someone who has lost a leg, typically through an accident or complications of diabetes.


The World Health Organization estimates there are around 35 MILLION, and many are children. That’s four times the entire population of Virginia! Over 80 percent of them are in developing nations where they often cannot afford a prosthetic device.

Think about a child never walking again. Michael Mabry and some friends thought about it a lot. Then they decided to do something about it.

“I bought orthotics from a local prosthetic technician, Phil Johnson, three years ago,” Mabry told me. “Phil has been working with orthotics and prosthetics for about 30 years. He told me he had been to Guatemala on a mission trip to try to help a boy he’d heard about who’d lost a leg. When he got there, he fitted the boy with his new leg. The next morning, there were 20 other kids lined up who needed a limb as well.”

Mike and Phil formed an organization in Blacksburg called “Hope to Walk,” to help as many people as they could. Prosthetic legs currently on the market are expensive, from $5,000 upwards.

They knew to make a real difference they’d need a less expensive alternative, because many of these victims live below the International Poverty Line – making less than $1.90 per day and don’t have any money.

They began building legs out of wood, rubber, fiberglass and PVC pipe for $80 to $100 each. And they could be made and fitted in poor, remote communities.

The two men met when Mike was a first year medical student at Edward Via School of Osteopathic Medicine.

“Logistically, it is difficult to make prosthetic limbs here and then try to deliver to poor countries. We knew we had to think outside of the box. I hadn’t had a particular interest in prosthetics prior, but I’d always had an interest in helping people, especially the poor. I want to empower them.” Mabry said.

I added, “This is the essence of the health care quandary we face. We live in a capitalistic system and companies have to make a profit. But everybody, rich and poor, gets sick. Only the rich can afford treatments for serious illnesses. Others might die prematurely because they don’t have the money. Medicine doesn’t fit well with the capitalistic model.”

He said that the causes can vary from country to country. In war-torn countries, many in Africa and Asia, a lot of the people were victims of land mines. In other countries, more people suffered from diseases like diabetes or accidents.

But the result was the same: millions of people could never find hope to walk again. The solution was lower-cost limbs.

“We simplified the materials, using parts that could be found in those countries. Phil has mechanical skills and learned how to fabricate these limbs. He is an engineer at heart and true learner. We went for simple, affordable, and effective. We can grind the foot to any shape, on the spot. We make 16” pylons, which is the leg shaft of the prosthetic, and can cut to each patient’s specific size. We can cast sockets on the spot as well. So our prosthetics cost from $70 to $94 in parts, instead of thousands. We get the money from fund-raising and donations most often through individuals, churches, and civic clubs.”

The organization is mostly comprised of Christians, but they have no requirements from their recipients. “We tell them we’re there because the Lord sent us and we care about them and He cares about them. We want to love them in a tangible way.

“It is one thing to take them legs. That’s great. But we are now in the process of developing training programs to teach Hondurans how to manufacture, install, and repair the prosthetics. When that’s done, we can step back and begin training others in a different country. We can empower people in these countries to help themselves.

“This is fun. I never know what direction I’ll be called to go. On our second trip, we fitted a prototype prosthetic to a man named Carlos. It cost less than $80 and did the entire casting and installation in 55 minutes. When we were done, he stood up and walked around for the first time in two years. He just got up and walked! When we saw him walk and saw him smile and saw his family smile, we knew something big was happening! That moment may possibly have set the course for the rest of my working life.

“We’re at a great place. We’re getting more donations and people are joining our team to help us make this a reality. However, this task is very large. In order to help thousands and especially millions, we need more people to get involved and help paddle the ship forward.”

If you’d like to help Michael, Phil and their team with their amazing, life-altering work, visit their website: www.hopetowalk.org.

Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.