Mr. Iseman was a student at Yale University when he and fellow students Victor Wang of Yale and Trang Duong of Brown discussed ideas for a nonprofit venture. Ms. Duong talked about the large number of amputees without prosthetics in her native Vietnam, an idea that excited Mr. Iseman because he had seen the enormous value of prosthetics while interning in high school at an agency for wounded veterans. On researching the issue, they learned that used prosthetic devices in America are treated as waste—even though most often nothing is wrong with them.
The nonprofit they started, Penta Medical Recycling, began seeking discarded prosthetic devices through amputee networks and clinics that handle the products. After searching for qualified medical personnel to fit the devices on amputees in Vietnam, Penta signed a partnership with the Vietnamese Ministry of Health’s Young Physicians Association who had no shortage of potential beneficiaries. Traffic accidents and unexploded ordnance from last-century’s wars have made amputation too common in Vietnam, where 90 percent of victims can’t afford the $2,000 to $10,000 cost of a prosthetic limb.
The Penta story highlights a sweet spot between the gravest Third World medical needs and the greatest sources of First World non-biodegradable waste. Amputation doesn’t top the list of emerging economies’ medical problems and prosthetics aren’t a leading threat to the environment. But Penta has found something like the perfect match between medical waste and medical need—having supplied over 1,300 devices to amputees in Central America and South Asia.
Tran Manh Cuong, 22, lost his leg above the knee following a traffic accident at the age of 12. He never had a prosthetic until receiving one this year via Penta. “With my new leg, I go to school and perform daily tasks just like a normal person,” said Tran.
Prosthetics not only provide mobility, but also help combat the perception in many developing countries that the disabled can bring misfortune or are even cursed.
Since its start in 2016, Penta has supplied more than 260 limb sets to Vietnamese amputees, including Nguyen Thang. A studious teenager with dreams of entrepreneurial success, Thang envisioned a prosperous future for himself in economically vibrant Vietnam. But on his 17th birthday, he was hit from behind by a motorbike that swerved onto the sidewalk. By the time he reached a hospital, the window to save his leg had closed, and he underwent a below-the-knee amputation.
Unable to afford a prosthetic limb, Thang dropped out of school and depended on friends, family and crutches for even minimal movement. In pursuit of a prosthesis that he knew he couldn’t afford, he came to the attention of doctors at Bệnh Viện Chỉnh Hình hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, one of Penta’s first partners and the largest private orthopedic hospital in Vietnam.
Soon afterward, Thang was fitted with a lightweight below-the-knee device that restored his mobility. Enrolled in college and hairdressing school now, he gets around by foot and motorbike. “The leg helps me move around easily,” he says. “I can have a job and take care of myself.”
Mr. Iseman is determined to expand geographically providing prosthetic components to ever-larger numbers of amputees. In that he faces financial and logistical barriers. Collecting and shipping prosthetic devices is expensive, and late in 2019 Penta expected to post expenses for the year of $110,000 on revenue from grants, donations and awards of $150,000. Of the founders, only Mr. Iseman works full-time at Penta, though he recently hired a Chief Operating Officer and Chief Strategy Officer, bringing to three the number of full-time employees at the organization.