Savannah’s hero 

Local prosthetist David Puckett is CNN Hero of the Year finalist

A CROWD gathered in City Hall last Tuesday to celebrate the accomplishments of local prosthetist David Puckett, one of 10 finalists of CNN’s Hero of the Year Award for his work with a non-profit organization.

Puckett’s organization, PIPO Inc. Missions to Mexico, offers free medical assistance to poor people in southern Mexico in need of prosthetic limbs or orthopedic braces.

Puckett was given a key to the city by Mayor Otis Johnson as supporters held up signs proclaiming David as ‘Savannah’s Hero.’ Puckett has been thrust into the international spotlight thanks to CNN’s Hero of the Year Awards, and Tuesday’s event was a chance for the hometown crowd to show their appreciation.

Out of over 3,700 candidates from 75 countries, Puckett was named one of 10 finalists, an honor which includes an award of $25,000. The contest culminates Thanksgiving night at an award show that will name one of the finalists Hero of Year. Before flying out to Los Angeles for the show, Puckett spoke with Connect by phone.

What drew you to the field of prosthetics and orthotics?

David Puckett: When I was a kid I always wanted to be a doctor. I lost my dad when I was 17, and I lost my direction for a little while. I followed my uncle into engineering and was studying that at the University of Michigan. I met a fellow who was a prosthetist-orthotist, like myself now, while I was working in the mall at a tuxedo place and he drew my interest back into the medical field after speaking with me.

Most people get into the field because they are an amputee or knew someone who was an amputee. I got into the field because I had a love for people and wanted to help restore and promote healing. I was so interested that I applied to different graduate programs and before I knew it I was head over heels in love with the field and here I am 20 years later.

How did you end up going to Mexico?

David Puckett: I went when I was 18 with a group from my church for a rebuilding project in a village. The following year, I was so interested in helping out down there that I returned. I lived there with a family working and living with them for 6 months. That birthed a strong desire to help them out physiologically with their needs, and I said to myself that if I ever get into a field where I can come back and help these people substantially then that’s what I’d like to do.

Ten years later I found myself in the field of prosthetics and orthotics, I got into my own practice in 1999 and I thought it was a perfect fit, having my own practice and being able to do the mission program. We’ve been doing it ever since and have made about 60 trips so far.

Is there a particular risk for limblessness down there?

David Puckett: Believe it or not, the per capita numbers of amputees and orthopedic brace users are not that much different from those in our country. The difference is that people here most of the time have insurance or the financial wherewithal to be able to get the medical care they need to blend in to society; or they get preventative care, which means that they don’t need the orthopedic brace or artificial limb in the first place, and you don’t see them sticking out like a sore thumb like you do down in Southern Mexico. The people there don’t have the financial wherewithal or insurance coverage so they just go without.

With so many cases, is there a system to delegate who gets care first?

David Puckett: We give care to everybody that we see. The only people that I will turn away are those who I don’t see as a safe candidate, or people who show up driving a Mercedes or a Cadillac. We’re there for the poorest of the poor, we’re there to help the people who can’t afford to get care.

How did you end up on CNN’s list?

David Puckett: The 3,700 nominees were sent in from 75 countries. In my case, the nomination was sent in by a gentleman who had taken an interest in our program here, and who knew about the CNN program. They proceeded to narrow the list of 3,700 down to 30, which was done by a blue ribbon panel at CNN. From the 30 they narrowed it down to 10. This blue ribbon panel consists of people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Franklin Graham, Magic Johnson, Dr. Deepak Chopra, Jane Goodall, and so many famous celebrities. I’m humbled that these folks took an interest in my program and in our mission program that they nominated me to be one of the 10.

Will the attention you’ve received enable you to do more outreach?

David Puckett: After the first CNN story ran, we were just lambasted with emails, phone calls, donations, mailings and stuff like that, to the tune of about $12,000, which doesn’t seem like all that much, but coming in all at once, it was great. We continued to get a trickle of donations and I know that regardless whether we win or not, we were fortunate to be in the Top 10 and receive a prize of $25,000. Now depending on how the voting goes, we’ll see whether we’re up for the $100,000 award from CNN.

How would winning the grand prize change what you’re able to do?

David Puckett: We’ve thought about the possibility, and I’ve already got plans for it. We’ve talked about building a small medical clinic in Southeastern Mexico. Our budget is shoestring, and our expenses for this year put us in the red a little bit, so part of it would go to get us out of the red so that we can get into a better position to help people further, but the majority would go to building this clinic.

If local people are interested in helping your organization, what can they do?

David Puckett: Go to our website, www.pipoinc.com, and click on our Mexico Missions link. There are 4 things people can do. They can support us financially, and with it being the end of the year, people are looking for a tax deduction. Second, they can donate artificial limbs and orthopedic braces, clothing, kids toys or canned goods and we take those down with us. Third, if they know medical health professionals who are interested in participating with us, or lay people who are interested, they could consider buying a ticket and working with us on a mission trip, which we do about six times per year. Fourth, we are always in need of volunteers here in our office for a variety of tasks, and we’re always looking for people who can give a couple of hours a week or a month to help with the non-profit. There are a lot of ways they can help. cs

To see whether David and PIPO Missions win Hero of the Year, tune in to CNN Thanksgiving night at 9 p.m.and for more information about PIPO Missions and opportunities to help their organization, visit www.pipoinc.com.

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