Feature stories

New foot forward

Dow Chemical International Pvt Ltd (Dow India), organised a three-day Jaipur Foot camp at Panvel, India, in November 2011, where people with locomotor disabilities walked away within hours, overjoyed at being fitted with a new foot

Tarabai Ingle has a new foot. Fitted with a wood-and-metal Jaipur Foot over 35 years ago, she now has a new polyurethane foot, lighter, easier to manipulate, better harmonised with her limb and less noticeable as a prosthetic.

Close beside her at a recent camp for people with locomotor disabilities at Panvel, Raigad district, in Maharashtra, Fatima Nusrat, studying for her BEd degree at SNDT University, waits for a replacement to her Jaipur Foot. “I have been physically challenged from birth, born with one limb almost non-existent while the other is completely normal,” she says. “I have been wearing the prosthetic since I was about 18 months old. My first Jaipur Foot was fitted in Kanpur, my native place. I’ve had this one, an original from Jaipur, for about two years. Now I am looking forward to changing it to the new, more flexible prosthetic,” she adds, smiling.

The Jaipur Foot has put India on the map for low-cost prosthetics. Designed by 'Masterji’, Ram Chander Sharma, a master craftsman in wood, under the guidance of orthopaedic surgeon Dr PK Sethi, the device has become popular worldwide and is promoted formally by government and non-government organisations in 18 countries. The promotion of the Jaipur Foot has principally been undertaken by the non-government organisation (NGO) Bhagwan Mahaveer Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS).

The first Jaipur Foot was a wood and vulcanised rubber structure designed and crafted by Masterji. That first model has since undergone several improvements, though the basic design remains the same. The latest version of the Jaipur Foot comprises an artificial leg (supporting the foot) made out of high-density polyethylene pipe with a plastic knee joint. This artificial limb is fitted to the amputee’s leg, which enables him or her to lead a near normal life.

Dow India has been a significant partner in the remarkable modifications that have gone to make the Jaipur Foot lighter and more flexible and, thereby, easier to use. It’s also easier and quicker to manufacture, with a computer-controlled injection moulding process ensuring uniform quality. Tarabai Ingle, for example, walked away with her new foot within hours of having a cast of her limb prepared.

Dow India offered the benefits of its extensive research in materials to improving the Jaipur Foot, and was largely responsible for the selection, supply, manufacture and launch of the new polyurethane (PU) Jaipur Foot in May 2006, a specially created prosthetic limb that has better functionality and flexibility, weighs far less and is visually more appealing for its aesthetic and natural looks than its predecessor in used plastic or polymer. Leading orthopaedic experts were all praise for the new foot in their review in March 2008.

The improvements have led also to quicker and cheaper manufacture, enabling BMVSS to conduct ‘Jaipur Foot camps’ and undertake a mobile initiative called ‘Jaipur Foot on Wheels’; the new Jaipur Foot costs $45 to manufacture but is given free of cost to the poor. In October 2009, a mobile clinic (a fully-functional Jaipur foot testing and manufacturing unit on wheels) was donated by Dow India to BMVSS to reach out to those who are unable to travel.

Dow India employees frequently volunteer at the community-focused camps supported by the mobile initiative, where medical and technical personnel attend to patients who can benefit from the Jaipur Foot. Each camp tends to hundreds — at the three-day November 2011 camp at Panvel, BMVSS technicians and Dow India volunteers attended to a large number of patients.

Vaishali Dighe, a Dow India employee, has been volunteering assistance at the camps for over two years. “This is my third year,” she says, adding that the camps have become much more organised and efficiently run over time. “This year, the focus is on Ratnagiri and Raigad districts; last year, we went to Pune. There were too many people and the technicians worked late into the night to cope with the workload. This year, it is much better organised,” she says.

NV Vyas, the BMVSS administrator stationed at Mumbai’s KEM Hospital, explains that BMVSS manufactures prosthetic limbs in various sizes, keeping these readily available before the camps and modifying these as required. The NGO also provides patients with free shoes sized to protect the prosthetic limbs and stockings to wear over the place where the prosthesis meets the limb-stump, to keep it protected. “A Jaipur Foot lasts about two years, and we provide a replacement limb whenever needed, again free of cost,” says Mr Vyas.

Dow India provides financial support for camps. Ruby Thapar, director for public affairs at Dow India, says that Dow India’s aim is to ensure that no patient goes away without being catered to or helped in some manner. Mr Vyas adds that Dow India "enables the first connection … the interaction of the Dow India volunteers with the patients, which lends the human touch to establishing a relationship for future interactions with BMVSS.”

— Jacinta Coutinho