Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE): Mr. Ki’s Story

My name is Sybounheuang Sansathit, but everyone calls me Ki. I am a Prosthetist and Orthotist (P&O) at the Center for Medical Rehabilitation in Vientiane, Laos. I see about 15 patients per week. I enjoy working with people with disabilities, and see my clients smile after their new device is fitted.

I was born and grew up in Xieng Khouang Province, in north-eastern Laos, a Province heavily bombarded by the Americans during the “secret war” that took place in parallel to the Vietnam War. The most common ordnances used were cluster munitions, containing hundreds of high-explosive bomblets, known in Laos as “bombies”. US bombing data indicates that more than 270 million bomblets wki-copeere dropped on Laos. With a failure rate of 10-30%, an estimated 80 million remain on the ground and capable of harm, contaminating 25% of Laos’ villages, and 14 of the 17 Provinces. Growing up, I saw many UXO victims, people who had lost their legs or arms, or both. Because of their disability, they could not work, they were poor, they could not join social activities and felt excluded from society. I saw them suffer and wanted to do something to help. That’s why I decided to study prosthetics and orthotics.

I was able to access a scholarship from the Nippon Foundation through the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), a Lao non-profit organization working in partnership with the Centre for Medical Rehabilitation (CMR) to ensure that people with physical disabilities have local, free access to a quality, nationally-managed rehabilitation service. I studied at the Cambodian School of Prosthetic and Orthotic from 1999 to 2002. I then came back to Laos for on-the-job training and practice, and worked for one year in each of the rehabilitation centers in Champassak, Pakse and Xieng Khouang Provinces. In 2005, I was accepted by LaTrobe University to undertake higher education. There again, I received a Nippon Foundation scholarship through COPE. I graduated in September 2007 with a B.Sc. in P&O. As a Category 1 P&O diploma, I am one of the two P&O in Laos with qualifications recognized by the International Society for P&O.

One of the main challenges I face in my job is that, because of limited resources, we are not always able to offer rehabilitation services at the level that I feel patients should receive. For instance, because of the lack of qualified P&O, it takes us longer to fabricate a prosthetic device than in other countries. Many of our patients are poor, subsistence farmers, and having to be away from their fields and wait for a device for 2 or 3 weeks means a financial big sacrifice for them.

But regardless of the occasional frustration, I love my job. My parents had a furniture shop, and when I was young I spent a lot of time helping my father in the workshop. I liked working with tools and machinery, fabricating things. In a way, I still do this. But I do much more now, I work with people! I still remember this 25-year old woman who arrived at the center one day: because of a vascular disease, she had lost her four limbs. Her eyes were so sad, they had lost their shine and sparkle. All that was left was a dull, bleak gaze. She stayed at the center for six weeks, and had to train to use the two artificial legs and arms that we made for her. I will never remember her face when she walked again for the first time. It was as if she was reborn.

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