For Thai orthopedic surgeon and 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Therdchai Jivacate, saving the lives of countless diabetic patients and landmine and accident victims through amputation was not enough. Seeing amputees, particularly from poor villages in northern Thailand, struggle with ineffective and unsafe improvised limbs, he was determined to find better, safer, and more comfortable alternatives.

Photo courtesy of www.thestar.com.my
Photo courtesy of www.thestar.com.my

The next time you throw away that empty soda can, think of what Thai doctor Therdchai Jivacate can do with that ring tab on top –

  • A kilo or 3,000 ring tabs from soft drink cans helps to make the joints of artificial legs.
  • The ring tabs are melted down to make the rod that goes inside the limb to support it.
  • The ring tabs are also used to make walking aids and frames.

For years now, schoolchildren and various groups in Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Bahrain and other countries have been collecting soda can tabs to send them to Therdchai. “Lids for Legs,” “Tab-a-leg” and the “Ring Pull Project” are just some of the campaigns that have amassed thousands of tabs pulled off aluminum cans for a recycling effort bridging people across the world, inspired by one man’s work to help the handicapped.

Therdchai Jivacate was a young orthopedic surgeon practicing in his native Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.  In 1966, he realized the need for a cheaper and sturdier alternative to the prosthetic limbs that were beyond the reach of common folk who lost limbs due to accidents, illness, or birth defects.

The imported artificial legs sold in hospitals and medical stores were not only costly but hard to maintain and poorly designed for life on the farm and in the mountains. To make do, some amputees, not satisfied with walking on crutches, fashioned substitute limbs from bamboo shafts, spare bicycle parts, leather straps and plastic pipes. The makeshift pieces were too crude to fit properly and too flimsy to last.

This spurred the young graduates of Chulalongkorn Hospital Medical School who also studied rehabilitation medicine at Northwestern University to begin experiments to produce artificial limbs. With his own money, he set up a small unit at Chiang Mai University Hospital to pursue what would become a lifelong commitment to literally give a leg-up to the disabled and help them live a normal life.

An advocate of self-reliance, he practiced what he preached by primarily using local materials and seeing to it that his inventions were adapted to local conditions. An early breakthrough involved recycling plastic yogurt bottles to fabricate artificial legs. He gave these out for free to needy patients.

In 1992, in recognition of Therdchai’s efforts, the Prostheses Foundation was set up in Chiang Mai University under the royal patronage of Thailand’s late Princess Mother Sri Nagarindra, mother of King Bhumibol. More than 17,000 people have since received artificial limbs free of charge.

Today, at 68, Therdchai is still walking that extra mile to make amputees walk again. With his volunteer staff, he has traveled to 60 provinces throughout Thailand providing free services to rural villagers. Each year, their mobile unit conducts about seven upcountry trips, each lasting a week or two.

Mini satellite plants capable of making artificial limbs on the spot have also been set up along the landmine-filled borders of Burma, Cambodia and Laos. To date, nearly 100 mobile workshops have reached out to remote high-need areas to provide services and prosthetic training. Therdchai also pioneered Thailand’s only school for occupational therapy as well as a special educational program for children suffering from chronic diseases at Chiang Mai.

“I just feel happy seeing my patients smile when they are able to walk on both legs,” says the soft-spoken doctor and professor. Two of his especially famous patients are elephants named Mosa and Motala. Each was fitted with a prosthetic leg after stepping on landmines on the Burmese border.

Through it all, Therdchai has remained an inventor. He assiduously refines his designs and fabrication techniques, in collaboration with engineers at the King Mongkut Institute of Technology, to produce all sorts of prosthetic components and equipment.

From recycled plastic yogurt bottles for his artificial legs, he has moved on to a more environmentally friendly plastic called high-density polyethylene, a byproduct of natural gas from the Gulf of Thailand. Sourcing local products, along with a surplus of donated soda can tabs, has reduced the cost of Therchai’s devices to 60-80 percent less than the imported alternatives.

The artificial “single axis” leg made by Therdchai’s unit is 2,500 baht (P3,266) apiece, a similar foreign-made item sells for 11,000 baht (P14,371). An artificial foot costs 150 baht (P196); imported models, 3,000 baht (P3,920). A forearm crutch is only 100 baht (P131); the imported version, 1,000 baht (P1,307).

Every leg produced is tailor-made for the recipient, carefully molded and tested for proper alignment, comfort and gait. Lightweight and durable, these include cosmetic legs of knee and above knee levels and for hip disarticulation. There are practical “farmer legs” specially designed to climb hilly terrain or working in wet, slippery fields. There are also “energy-saving” feet that allow comfortable walking and even a flip-flop version with an opening between the toes.

Last August, the doctor who helped thousands of people get back on their feet and taught them to view disability not as an inability but a challenge to move forward attained Asia’s highest honor.

Therdchai Jivacate received the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service for “his dedicated efforts in Thailand to provide inexpensive, practical and comfortable artificial limbs to even the poorest amputees.” #