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Helping people put their best foot forward

Update: June, 29/2014 - 18:18

Team work: Local and foreign technicians design shoes for people with foot problems at a VIETCOT workshop in Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Doan Tung

People with disabilities should take heart from the stories of a nine-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy who have been helped to get on their feet by inspirational peers and free prosthetic limbs, report Ha Nguyen and Cong Binh

Trinh Ngoc Thuy took one look at the baby she had just given birth to and fainted.

Her family was horrified as well. The baby had no limbs.

"We were all filled with terror. When I regained consciousness I cried all day. I kept asking God what wrong did I do that he gave us such a heavy punishment. Our sorrow and isolation lasted a long time."

"After we recovered somewhat from the initial shock, we named her Linh Chi. She looked lovely and grew up, month after month."

Nguyen Linh Chi owes her deformity to Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant that was sprayed by the US forces during the war in Viet Nam.

Her grandfather, Nguyen Dinh Xanh, a veteran of the war, had been infected with the toxic chemicals during the fierce battles in Khe Sanh in the central province of Quang Tri.

Chi is the third generation AO victim, her mother Thuy said at her home in the north-western province of Yen Bai.

She told Viet Nam News that her family can never forget the day in 2005 when Chi was born. But it is not just that day that remains etched in her memory.

When Chi could talk and perceive her body's flaws, she would ask sadly: "Why don't I have hands and legs, mother?"

Step by step: Vi Van Vuong, 17, has begun his path to normalcy thanks to prosthetic legs provided free of charge by VIETCOT. — Photo coutersy VIETCOT

The mother would lie: "When you grow up, new limbs will grow."

Chi's life, and that of her mother's, changed completely on May 23 last year, when they met with world famous motivational speaker Nick Vujicic at the My Dinh Stadium in Ha Noi.

Chi's father, Nguyen Dinh Nam, said that all they wanted to do was for Chi to "see and touch" a real person like herself.

Thuy said that after she met with Vujicic, who is also limbless, she felt more confident about facing the difficulties and hardship involved in bringing up her daughter.

Millions saw on TV the meeting between Vujicic and Chi. He told Chi not to be afraid. He said, "Look at me. You will be able to overcome all your difficulties. You have a lot of friends around you, including me. Call me anytime you need anything."

Later, "I received a lot of phone calls from strange people who wanted to help Chi. For the first time, I felt that we are not alone," Thuy said.

Four months later, the Vietnamese Training Centre for Orthopaedic Technologists (VIETCOT) offered to make prosthetic limbs for Chi for free.

After she was examined, it was decided that the first step would be to provide her with functional upper limbs.

In two weeks, the prosthetic limbs were ready. Every day, technicians guided Chi as she tried to grasp things and to write.

Nguyen Hai Thanh, director of VIETCOT, said Chi's hard work and the technicians' dedication paid rich dividends, with Chi gradually getting used to her "new friend".

Once she could use the upper prosthetic limbs to write, the technicians began working on limbs for the lower part - hip disarticulation prosthetics and a trans-femoral one, Thanh said.

To help Chi get used to her new legs, Thuy helped her practice standing three to four times a day, one hour a time. Sometimes the little child was tired and wanted to stop, but the mother was firm and would insist that she stands for an hour, Thanh said.

After more than three weeks of training, Chi was able to stand fairly steadily. She can even lean on others and walk a little. However, Thanh said the girl would need a lot of practice over a long period of time to be able to walk without her mother's support.

After nearly two months at VIETCOT, Chi returned to her hometown and rejoined her primary school. The difference was stark. Far from being shy and withdrawn, she had become a happy, smiling child because she could hold things, brush her teeth and write without help from others.

"I am happy now. I can write and I have become an outstanding pupil at my school," Chi told Viet Nam News.

Her mother confirmed this. "My child is not shy anymore. She is more confident and more comfortable communicating with strangers."

She said her daughter still needs help. After a recent operation she had to undergo, Chi was feeling occasional pain in her artificial hand, making it difficult to handle things.

"And despite my efforts to help her practice walking, she still finds it hard because we do not have the specialized devices that VIETCOT has," said Thuy.

Watch and learn: A foreign technician guides a local worker.

She said she hoped to receive more assistance from VIETCOT and other individuals and organisations in the coming time.

However, "I myself am optimistic and more open now. Chi makes me proud. I will always try to make her happy in any circumstance."

Back on his feet

In a different but equally sad scenario, 17-year-old Vi Van Vuong, who belongs to the Tay ethnic minority community, lost the use of both legs (below the knee) and a hand after being electrocuted last year.

The teenager is a resident of the remote village of Kim Khuc in Cao Bang Province's Bao Lac District.

Vuong's father, 40-year-old Vi Van Ngoc, said: "Doctors at the Bao Lac District Hospital told us to take him to Ha Noi for treatment but we are very poor, eking out a meager living from our rice field. We could not afford the trip. Then, one of our acquaintances in Cao Bang Town sponsored the trip and introduced my son to the Viet Nam National Institute of Burns, where he received free treatment."

After two months at the institute, Vuong was sent to VIETCOT for having prosthetic limbs made for him.

"Thanks to the centre, my son can walk with crutches but his life is still very difficult because he had to drop out of school for treatment of his burns and other injuries. He now has no work to do," Ngoc said, adding that his son wishes to learn to use a computer.

"I cannot work in the field. My desire is to have a computer so I can try my best to learn it. I hope someone will help me work for them," Vuong said.

'Made for walking'

VIETCOT has proven to be a boon for many people like Chi and Vuong.

Early this month, VIETCOT launched a project called "These shoes are made for walking," aiming to provide orthopaedic solutions for two million people with major foot problems in Southeast Asia.

Almost ready: A worker puts finishing touches to a prosthetic leg.

The project runs an international course at VIETCOT's office in Ha Noi, using unique Dutch expertise in this field and will sow the first seeds of a network of orthopaedic shoe-making workshops in the region, said Rianne van Pijkeren, the project's training co-ordinator.

Van Pijkeren said it is very rewarding to contribute to a project that will help people affected by chemicals, landmines, traffic accidents and diseases throughtout Viet Nam and other ASEAN countries.

She said many Vietnamese people suffer from foot related problems including clubfoot, paralysis, amputations or congenital deformities.

"They need orthopaedic shoes and devices," she said.

The project has attracted trainees from ASEAN, India and Nepal, van Pijkeren said, adding that after graduating, they will return to their countries and train more technicians in making orthopaedic shoes for disabled people with foot problems.

" And besides that we will provide them our help to set up a business in their country," she said.

Financial sponsorship for the project has been provided by the Dutch Postcode Lottery of the Netherlands. The Netherlands Leprosy Relief (NLR), a member of ILEP (International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations) is involved in project implementation because leprosy is an important cause of foot deformities.

"Good orthopaedic shoes or sandals can help many leprosy patients with foot disabilities walk again," said Jan Robijn, Mekong office representtive of NLR.

Since it opened in 1997, VIETCOT has given hundreds of artificial limbs and other orthopaedic devices free of charge to people with disabilities.

It has also provided professional training based on the standards of the International Society for Prosthetics and Orthotics (ISPO) and the World Health Organisation. — VNS

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