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Win-win as charity transforms lives of African amputees whilst saving cash-strapped NHS money

We all like to bring back a memento or two from our holidays, but when Tom Williams returned from Gambia in 2011 he brought back something truly memorable: a mission to transform the lives of amputees in West Africa.

During his trip Tom met a father who had lost his leg due to diabetes, a condition which, due to poverty and poor diet, is rife on the continent. Tom saw first-hand the impact amputation had had on him and his family and, realising the liberating power a prosthetic could offer, decided to source him an artificial limb.

That one kind act set in motion many others with Tom mobilising support across the UK under the Legs4Africa banner. This led to him and fellow volunteers undertaking a near 4,000 mile road trip last April to deliver some 500 prosthetics to the Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Gambia’s capital, Banjul. A few months later the increasingly ambitious Legs4Africa secured charity status with a 2014 target to secure donations from hospitals and individuals of some 1,000 artificial legs.

The donations the charity seeks are of limbs which can no longer be used by their original owners. These cannot be “recycled” in the UK as used prosthetics are categorised under EU law as medical waste. It’s estimated that around 15,000 prosthetic limbs are simply thrown away in the UK – what’s more the NHS must pay to have them destroyed. In what is a truly virtuous win-win situation Legs4Afrca can simultaneously help transform the lives of African amputees but also save British taxpayers’ money.

“Our principles, our goals, our mission is all quite simple,” says Tom. “We collect prosthetics, we find partners in Africa that have the facilities and expertise to customise them and we supply them as long as they satisfy our criteria, primarily that operate a fair waiting list and will not sell limbs on.”

It sounds simple but aside from the logistics of collecting and transporting limbs, some resistance can be encountered by donors worried about possible liabilities. “NHS facilities rightly point out that they own the prosthetics rather than their patients. Initially they may therefore have concerns about whether they could be held liable if, say, a donor in Africa trips over,” explains Tom. The charity works hard to assuage those concerns, firstly by putting disclaimers in place at the hospitals which they supply which state liability begins and ends with them. That’s further bolstered by the charity’s own liability agreement and also the way it processes donor limbs.

“We don’t actually send the entire leg. We saw about an inch below the socket which connects to an amputee’s stump so that what we’re supplying is a component rather than a whole limb. We need to do that anyway because sockets are customised. In Africa a mould is taken of a patient’s stump and a new socket created which is fitted to the donor limb so it fits exactly.”

Next week we’ll continue our focus on the life-changing work of Legs for Africa, highlighting the fundraising and practical challenges it faces and some exciting news of how the charity’s profile is set to be raised.

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