Walking Free’s Solomon Islands Project – A Prosthetic and Orthotic Lab inside of a shipping container!

Aug 15, 2022

Written by: Holden Russell

Motivation Australia estimates hundreds of prosthetics are needed in the Solomons to address a diabetes crisis but it said there was no way to make them locally. The Pacific suffers from high rates of diabetes related amputations and health services are often unable to cope. Motivation’s chief executive Kylie Mines said in Solomon Islands, many people were going without artificial limbs since the recent shutdown of the country’s only prosthetics workshop. “Unfortunately, the situation in the Solomons at the moment is that those people are being discharged and returning home without a means of mobility, or they may be prescribed with a wheelchair,” Ms Mines said. (RNZ).

Rendering of future Solomon Islands Prosthetic and Orthotic Container Lab
The comfort of the first world can work as blinders to what we would consider accessible medicine. While hundreds of labs continue to produce prostheses and orthoses around the United States, the Solomon Islands are in need of a local solution to their absence of prostheses and orthoses. Walking Free, the international division of Mission Gait, is working to bridge this gap and help the hundreds in need.

In June 2021, Walking Free signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Health and Medical Services, Solomon Islands, to bring state-of-the-art prosthetic care to amputees living in the country. The project is unique in its design as it will provide a fully outfitted prosthetic lab inside of a 40’ shipping container. The container will have all the equipment and tools needed to create artificial limbs.

At present, amputees are unable to receive a prosthetic device as there is no fabrication center in the country and after limb loss, amputees face a life of severe limitations. Once the container interior build-out and equipment installation has been completed in Richmond, Va., the container will be transported via ship to the Solomon Islands and placed on the grounds of Kilu’ufi Hospital on the island of Malaita.

While the container project took off in 2021, the relationships with the Solomon Islands started years before in the small fishing community of ‘Lau Valley” in the Solomon Islands. Hudson, a local to the area, is a generous man in his village, supporting 15 people living under one roof. He is known as the ‘doctor’ due to his

mechanical skills that help keep village boats working for other families’ livelihoods. “Average 30% of the total population depends on fishing for an income.”

All of this was put into jeopardy when he stepped on a piece of glass and his foot would not heal due to the life-threatening complications of diabetes. The only course of action was to amputate his leg. With a lengthy hospital stay and no resource for amputees in the Solomon Islands, he became home-bound with no hope of him ever walking again. Losing his spirit, he began a health decline so severe that his son-in-law, a Richmond native, jumped into action bringing him to the United States for care.

Soon after his arrival in Richmond, Hudson was connected to Mission Gait and their Walking Free Program, where a three-month journey to recovery began. By finding the rehabilitation goals that mattered most to Hudson, the prosthetist tapped into his mechanical knowledge and shared how a prosthetic device is built and the physical therapist taught the theory behind the exercises. This knowledge is important due to the lack of resources in the village and will help him overcome basic obstacles that will arise in the future.

Returning home with renewed hope and purpose, Hudson has been a seed of hope and encouragement visiting his family, friends, and fellow Solomon Islanders who are presently housebound and unable to walk – just as he was only months before. He goes to their homes and explains how Walking Free volunteer prosthetists can design and make a prosthesis, and how with physical therapy patients can begin to walk and do things once again that they thought were lost forever.

Hudson’s story remains an inspiration to all people involved with Mission Gait’s Walking Free, Solomon Islands Project. This connection was only the beginning to a great relationship with the Solomon Islands, and marked a big step towards medical growth.

While Hudson was the beginning, Jeff Allen (Hudson’s son in-law) has taken this relationship to the next step. Jeff continues to tell the story in his own words:

I have been doing mission work in the Solomon Islands since 2010 along with my wife, Suzie, who is a Solomon Islander.

In August of 2018, in the village, “Lau Valley,” Suzie’s dad and my father-in-law, Hudson, had stepped on a piece of glass and his foot had become infected because he has diabetes. So that August, they had to amputate his foot. This procedure, however, didn’t help, and it became further infected, so they had to amputate his leg. He was in the hospital for several months in the Solomon’s.

My wife Suzie was very concerned after finding out his condition, as were we all. So immediately I felt that we should bring him over here to the US. So I started the process for Hudson to be able to come over to Richmond, VA.

A few weeks after Hudson arrived, my dad contacted a friend of his who also had had amputations of his legs. This friend recommended we see physical therapist David Lawrence at Lawrence Rehabilitation Specialists – The Gait Center. So we made an appointment. When Hudson met Mr. Lawrence, we both immediately knew we were in the right place.

Mr. Lawrence looked at Hudson’s leg and immediately called a prosthetist, his friend and colleague just down the road at the Hanger Clinic; Gil Mejia. Hudson began the process of fitting for a prosthesis through Gil Mejia and the Hanger Clinic in Richmond Va. They fitted him for his prosthetic device, and immediately you could see his whole countenance change, hope came in, and determination to walk again as well. Hudson saw the possibility.

Under David’s therapy, Hudson progressed very quickly; each session was taking monumental steps forward. I watched Hudson progress from walking in with crutches to walking unassisted, climbing stairs, walking fast, running, walking over uneven ground and surfaces, even playing some soccer for therapy (balance). David’s techniques were clear, progressive, and achieved results very quickly.

Gil and Hanger Clinic also provided Hudson with an additional prosthetic device for going into the ocean, as Hudson lives most of his life on the sea and supports his family with fishing. So with the life-altering prostheses and physical therapy, Hudson was released and able to return to the Solomon Islands.

In the Solomon Islands there are hundreds, if not thousands, waiting for a prosthetic device year after year. Every week on average 2 or 3 amputations take place. Those amputated have no hope of walking again, because immobility along with emotional and physical health concerns, their conditions begin to decline as there are no prosthetic capabilities in the country at this present time.

Hudson back at work in the Solomon Islands!
These efforts are led by the Walking Free “dream team” – a group of colleagues who have been volunteering together internationally for over 20 years. David Lawrence, MSPT, Founder and CEO of Mission Gait, Gil Mejia, CP, Coordinator of Prosthetics, and Gail Grisetti, EdD, PT, Director of Walking Free. In addition, Jeff Allen is an integral part of the team, coordinating all communication with the Solomon Islands and heading up the fundraising. Joining this team and bringing project management and design experience are Carolyn Lawrence CID, ASID and the invaluable Sheila Gunst interior designer and owner of the container design company, Rustic Global.
The shipping container, now painted Mission Gait Blue, is a work in progress!
Sheila Gunst’s expertise in transforming containers into habitable dwellings, paired with the prosthetic knowledge and skills of David Lawrence and Gil Mejia will come together to create a compact yet efficient design for the prosthetic and orthotic lab.

The first step of the process was the delivery of the shipping container to Sheila’s build-out site in the late spring of 2022. Then came prepping for paint, including grinding off the rust from the exterior and getting the spots primed. The exterior of the container is now painted Mission Gait blue, and after the floors, walls, and ceiling are framed out, the insulation will be installed. This is a critical component to the design, especially in an island environment, to control condensation within the air conditioned lab.

The goal of the project continues to be the fitting of a state-of-the-art prosthetic and orthotic lab into the small, limited space of a storage container. Luckily, Ms. Gunst brings experiences in tiny spaces, and is helping to organize the entire project. David,Gil, and Carolyn have worked hand and hand with Sheila for several months on the intricate space planning necessary to fit all of the industrial sized equipment. The Solomon Islands project is truly a team effort, and involves trust on all sides.

The expense of the entire project will be covered by Mission Gait’s Walking Free fundraising, and while the project has been set up for success, supplies and shipping prices continue to inflate. The need for prostheses and orthoses for the Solomon people is growing, and our efforts to fill those needs are in motion. We have gotten this far thanks to the generous donations of the community, and hope we can continue our journey through further donations and support.