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10th November 2016

Changing lives one step at a time

Giving an amputee the opportunity to walk again is rewarding work. Seeing that person running towards you on the prosthetic leg you fitted, to give you a great big hug, is even better.

That’s why Roger Gonzalez does what he does. He’s the founder and CEO of LIMBS International, a non-profit organisation that transforms the lives of amputees in developing countries by fitting them with prosthetic legs and feet so that they can regain their mobility, independence and dignity.

“Our work is not just about being able to walk again. It’s also about what’s going on emotionally with the patient and getting communities involved. It opens the door to empowerment,” Roger tells This Is Medtech.

According to LIMBS, the World Health Organization estimates that there are 40 million amputees throughout the developing world. However, only about 5% of them have access to any form of prosthetic devices or assistance. Even when help is available, amputees often can’t afford to pay for it. This leaves millions of amputees without hope of leading a full life, especially as disabled people can be socially excluded in many cultures.

Roger, a biomedical and mechanical engineer who is Chair and Professor of Engineering Education and Leadership at The University of Texas at El Paso, noticed the disparity between need and access at a young age during visits to Mexico. “A seed was planted early in my youth. Later I went on to study engineering, which has allowed me to do something about it,” he says, noting that he’s directly involved in designing the prosthetics that LIMBS supplies.

Empowering local communities is a major part of the organisation’s modus operandi. A key to its success is partnerships with local aid groups and clinics, which better understand the culture and thus the emotional effects of being an amputee, getting fitted with a prosthetic limb, and going through rehabilitation. “We’re in this for significant impact and long-term sustainability rather than simply large-scale supply,” explains Roger.

Having said that, his organisation has embarked on a project ‒ aptly called BOLD ‒ in which LIMBS aims to fit 250,000 amputees in the next 10 years. This is an enormous challenge given the need to find local partners as well as the funding to train them.

Keeping it personal

Aside from the logistical hurdles, maintaining a personal approach is fundamental. “Every amputee is unique,” comments Roger. This means that ideally several visits are needed, beginning with an initial assessment and measurements, then returning for the fitting, then following up with any necessary adjustments and of course rehab.

As half of these patients live in remote areas, this requires a huge amount of dedication from the amputees. “Each visit may be an hour, but it can take them all day to get to and from the appointment, not to mention the bus fare, which they may not be able to afford,” he says. Naturally, the devices need upgrading every so often, so it’s a lifetime commitment.

However, the level of joy and connection with his patients makes these seemingly insurmountable obstacles all worthwhile. “These people become friends. They’re not just amputees,” says Roger. “It’s really about giving people hope and building a bridge. Mobility contributes to many things in life.”

Interested in this topic? Roger will be talking about LIMBS International at the 2016 MedTech Forum Gala Dinner in Brussels on 1 December. Click here to check the programme and register.