By Jeff Brumley
Craig McMahan has a Ph.D. in New Testament, which has served him well as dean of chapel and university minister at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
But it’s the license in prosthetics that’s come in most handy during multiple trips to Southeast Asia.
With that license, McMahan said, he helped launch and grow Mercer on Mission’s annual project in Vietnam, where he, students and other Mercer faculty help design, manufacture and distribute prosthetic legs.
And in that sense, the prosthetics certificate has been every bit as much helpful as his doctorate in living out the Great Commission, McMahan said.
“The whole Mercer on Mission program is a living out of what it is to love your neighbor as yourself — and to do it in very concrete ways,” he said.
This year, the program included 180 students and 36 faculty working in 12 developing nations around the world. Next year, its 10th anniversary, it’s expected to include 200 students, McMahan said.
The learning service program operates in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and other places around the world. Each location features a different form of service — a prosthetics program in Vietnam, providing mosquito netting and safe drinking water in Africa, teaching orphans in Guatemala and working with the homeless in Brazil, among others.
McMahan said students often report the experiences change their lives.
‘Amazing and grounding’
That was certainly Marin Guta’s experience after traveling to Vietnam with Mercer on Mission this year.
“It changes your perspective on the world,” the 22-year-old journalism major said. “It really changes you as a person and the way you go about your life and how you view everyday things.”
Guta said she felt that shift primarily through her main function on the team: documenting the prosthetics work of students and faculty through still photography, shooting video and writing.
Guta did have the opportunity to do some prosthetic fittings, but most of her time was devoted to employing the news- and image-gathering skills she’s honed at Mercer and during summer internships with various media outlets.
Through camera lenses she watched hundreds of Vietnamese, many who lost limbs during the war and since then to landmines, receive prosthetics that helped them walk — many for the first time in years.
Seeing those people and hearing their hardships — yet also their tremendous will to live — “was amazing and grounding,” Guta said.
“It moved me because I had opportunities to tell stories that were so moving and crazy-inspirational,” she said.
Guta added it was hard sometimes not to put her cameras down to help patients walk. But she had to remember that for her, on this trip, fulfilling the Great Commission meant being the best journalist she could be.
“It put me out of my comfort zone for sure, but it taught me so much,” she said. And her subjects expressed their gratitude for her work, too.
“They were grateful to have someone hear their stories and tell their stories,” Guta said.
‘My best shot’
Those stories and all the others from around the world began with the 2006 arrival of Mercer President William Underwood.
Fresh on the job, Underwood called McMahan into his office and directed him to develop a program enabling Mercer students to learn abroad while providing service that honored the university’s Baptist roots.
“I said ‘I will give it my best shot,’” McMahan recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t want your best shot, I want you to do this.’”
That mandate sent McMahan searching for projects to get Mercer students and faculty abroad.
One of the first he found was being developed by Ha Van Vo, an associate professor of biomedical engineering. Vo developed lightweight, durable prosthetics and was looking for a way to distribute them in his native Vietnam.
“I was scrambling for programs,” McMahan said. “He had one but he had no way to grow it — so our mutual needs found each other.”
The prosthetic legs are top-quality, adjustable over the lifetime of the user and have an ankle and foot that flex.
“They are lightweight, very durable … and extremely comfortable,” McMahan said. “I have seen people run in it.”
Mercer students and faculty have made 10 trips to Vietnam since 2009, where they have fitted more than 4,000 amputees with Vo’s patented Universal Socket Prosthetic, Mercer said in a news release.
The most recent trip occurred this summer, when 24 students and four faculty members fitted 489 people for prosthetics.
To identify recipients, the program works through local government agencies roughly equivalent to county health departments in the United States, McMahan said.
“We do two locations on every trip,” he added.
‘They cry because they are so happy’
But Vo said one of the most rewarding aspects was the program’s certification in June by the Vietnamese government. This will allow the waiving of taxes and fees and provides banking and other privileges for the Mercer program.
The timing comes just as the program is establishing permanent clinics in Vietnam — operating even when Mercer on Mission students aren’t there.
The program identified a Vietnamese physician and several trained technicians to do the fittings year-round. Mercer said a third such clinical base was established in February, giving the program a presence in the cities of Ben Tre, Can Tho and Phung Hiep.
The government has requested the program move into the northern part of the country, Vo said.
The year-round “enables us to make repairs without patients waiting for us to come every summer to help them,” Vo said.
As the permanent locations are established in Vietnam, the next likely will be into Cambodia, Vo said.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it, he said.
“You see a guy with no arms and no legs and you can help them walk again,” he said. “They cry because they are so happy.”
The annual Mercer on Mission clinics will continue with the goal of establishing more permanent sites, McMahan said.
“We will always be taking trips back,” he said.
‘This is truly powerful’
And Chris Sheridan will be making those trips, the Macon businessman and engineer said.
“This is something that was clearly beneficial in an immediate and cathartic kind of way,” said Sheridan, chairman of Sheridan Construction. “And it seemed like something that could be scaled up — and the idea of scaling it up really intrigued me.”
Sheridan, who is Catholic, became aware of the Vietnam prosthetics project through his membership on the board of Mercer’s engineering school.
“I was interested from the very beginning but it took me about a year before I started doing anything about it,” he said.
What he did was have his foundation pledge $1.25 million to the program and make several trips with the group since 2013.
Sheridan said his involvement, which includes help in boosting the permanent Mercer on Mission presence in Vietnam, has provided him with a deeply moving way to live out his faith.
“This is just a super easy way to really give somebody their life back,” he said. “To me, this is truly powerful.”