Legs4Africa: Giving new life to those in need

As many people know, not everything that we carry through with us in life can be taken with us after death and when it comes to preparing a body for burial, this rings very true for the funeral sector. Unless requested for removal and return by the deceased or their loved ones, dental gold, jewellery and medical parts will be buried in the coffin with the deceased and in the case of a cremation they will either be discarded or recycled. In the case of artificial limbs, healthcare providers will generally not accept them back leaving the professionals who deal with them with little choice but to discard of them, meaning someone in need is missing out on the opportunity to utilise and repurpose the life-assisting equipment.

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Charity Legs4Africa was set up in 2014 by founder Tom Williams after he took a trip to Gambia, west Africa and met his friend Paul who was an amputee. Williams helped Paul to obtain a prosthetic leg which was manufactured in the UK and it was then that he had the realisation of how difficult it could be for some to acquire the aid that many with access to quality healthcare take for granted. “This triggered an understanding of how many amputees live in Africa without access to physical or emotional rehabilitation,” he says. He proceeded to make contact with a prosthetist in the UK called Karl who agreed to build a custom leg for Paul in his spare time. When this request was completed, Williams then visited the country’s main hospital in its capital city of Banjul. There, he met with Gambian’s only prosthetist Gabu Jarjue who customised the leg for Paul’s use. During this encounter, Jarjue explained to Williams that although the hospital had the capacity to get over 30 amputees walking each month, the medical team did not have the components to build prosthetic legs with. Following this, Williams personally delivered the leg to Paul and from that moment, the beginnings of the charity was established.

Although many healthcare centres, crematoriums, mortuaries and funeral homes do have recycling procedures in place to ensure such equipment gets put to good use, others may not be aware of all of the disposal or recycling methods available, leaving them with no other choice but to discard them. “Most prosthetic legs are disposed of because the user is not aware that they can be recycled,” Williams claims. According to statistics, 5,000 legs are thrown away every year in the UK, but Legs4Africa only sees about 1,000 per year come in with the intention of being used for someone in a poorer country. “[This] means we’ve still got our work cut out,” he says. In spite of the large number of prosthetic limbs being thrown away or recycled for alternative use each year, in the four years the charity has been in operation Legs4Africa says it has managed to ship enough components to build 4,500 legs. While inception of the charity began in Africa, Williams insists that the organisation which also recycles prosthetic arms is more than open to helping others outside of the continent who are also in need or in response to “emergency appeals”.

Aside from the obvious benefit of regaining dexterity and ability through the use of the limbs, there is a confidence that comes with someone gaining the independence and capacity to be able to do things without limitations. “Beneficiaries are able to take more control of their lives, get back into school or work and fully provide for themselves.” In the charity’s introduction video on its website, the benefits of the limbs are further explained as prosthetist Jarjue credits the limbs with preventing “depression, loneliness and helplessness” and even claims it led to some patients being able to find work, lifelong companionship and get married. Williams adds: “Life in Africa can be very difficult, especially if you are an amputee and have no access to a fitted prosthetic leg. Social stigma means that people with disabilities are thought less of and are often considered a burden to their families.”

Approximately 30 percent of the limbs obtained by Legs4Africa come from the funeral trade, which is why Williams feels it is important to raise awareness of what can be done with the components which may otherwise be considered waste material. Funeral directors can partner with the charity and place posters in their funeral homes to let clients know that the option is available to help “change lives in Africa”. Currently, the charity accepts limbs via post at a cost of £5 per leg.

For the trade, Legs4Africa serves a bigger purpose than offering a resourceful way for funeral homes to get rid of excess components, as it also gives the sector a chance to strengthen its existing relationship with charity work. Williams insists that those involved in the programme will get pleasure from “knowing that the components from any prosthetic legs sent to us are going to make a huge difference to someone’s life.” He continues: “Components that we provide to hospitals are prioritised to the most vulnerable which is usually women and children.”

Helping those in need has been gratifying for Williams and his team, which includes charity manager Phil Tunstall and fundraiser Evie Dickinson. He says: “My personal involvement with the charity has been very rewarding, having seen how many people’s lives are turned around simply by being resourceful and recycling prosthetic legs that are generously sent our way.” Furthermore, the charity’s future mission is to work on a “comprehensive rehabilitation plan” which can eventually be rolled out to any hospital in Africa that works with the Legs4Africa organisation. “This would include physical and emotional support but ultimately we recognise that by keeping things simple and focused we are able to make a bigger impact than if we spread ourselves to thinly.”

This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of Funeral Service Times

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