CNN Hero David Puckett, CPO, LPO: Mission of Love

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By Morgan Stanfield

"Mercy...blesses him who gives it and him who receives it."
     -William Shakespeare

David Puckett helps a bilateral amputee stand on new prosthetic feet.
David Puckett helps a bilateral amputee stand on new prosthetic feet.

How does a man become a hero? David Puckett, CPO, LPO, has spent more than nine years on a mostly solitary mission to transform the lives of indigent Mexican villagers who suffer from discapacidades- disabilities-of the limbs. He has spent more than $100,000 of his own money, sacrificed his personal life, endured crushing 16-hour days, dodged government corruption, and been regularly disappointed by people who promise to help him and then back out. Why does he do it? The quietly impassioned Southerner quoted Shakespeare to The O&P EDGE: "Mercy...blesses him who gives it and him who receives it." He continues, "I'm able to give love. I'm able to give [my Mexican patients] my love; I'm able to share with them God's love; I'm able to share with them that there is life after disability and that they still have a chance at regaining a wonderful life. And it certainly blesses me. I'm able to see my own small problems in a different light when I'm in an area where people never otherwise would have received medical care, much less artificial-limb and orthopedic-brace care. So it's more than an opportunity for me to be able to help them; it's a tremendous opportunity to be blessed at the same time." Puckett has been blessed in this way by the more than 1,300 Mexican people to whom he has provided free O&P care and devices, clothing, medical supplies, food, and other donations.

Genesis of a Hero

Puckett with a beneficiary of PIPO Missions.
Puckett with a beneficiary of PIPO Missions.

Rather than spending his 19th birthday celebrating with other teenagers in his native Detroit, Michigan, Puckett celebrated his birthday on a six-month church mission to the Mexican highlands, where he saw staggering poverty. People who lacked legs or needed braces dragged themselves along dirt roads. People who lacked arms were unemployable and socially isolated. While living in the villages, the rangy blond teenager thought, "I hope I come back and make a difference in these people's lives." A few years later, he entered the O&P program at Century College, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He now says, "I thought it would be a good match, letting me return to the area that warmed my heart and won my heart, letting me help these people overcome their physical handicaps and obstacles to medical care."

For the first ten years of his career, Puckett made a few O&P trips to Mexico, but says, "the companies I worked for were not too excited about losing me for weekends and using their money and resources...so I decided that the only way that I was going to be able do it was by going down there on my own, as my own company."

Puckett founded Positive Image Prosthetics & Orthotics (PIPO), Savannah, Georgia, with two kinds of success in mind: professional and philanthropic. He has succeeded on both counts. The high-tech-focused PIPO now has three offices in Georgia, and PIPO Missions, the company's charitable arm, has allowed Puckett to carry out some 46 O&P mission trips to Mexico in the past nine years.

Prosthetic legs ready for transportation in Puckett’s suitcase.
Prosthetic legs ready for transportation in Puckett’s suitcase.

During Puckett's mission trips, demand for his services is beyond overwhelming. Puckett says that on his first mission trip, "I went there and got ambushed. I was in a small village clinic and they said, 'Hey, can you see a couple more people tomorrow?' and I said, 'Sure.' I got there the next morning and there were literally 100 people in line to see me."

Since then, Puckett has travelled to Mexico every six to eight weeks for four or five days at a time. On each visit, he sees as many as 50 patients and travels among some 20 villages in Chiapas and Yucatan. Patients drive as many as 14 hours to see him. "It's a marathon," he says. "I'm running from village to village... sometimes working 16-hour days and with 10 more people waiting to be seen at the end of the day."

Heroic Labors

The effort to provision, fund, and organize these journeys is Herculean. Puckett says that in the approximately eight-week preparation cycles before a mission trip-during which he continues to work full-time office hours-he really rests for only two weeks. For the next month, he does the heavy work of preparing limbs, braces, and donated materials. In the final two weeks, he crams "as many stuffed animals, toys, clothes, and whatever else we can bring down there into my suitcases," which are always open in his spare bedrooms.

Transporting supplies to the highlands is a major problem. Shipping across the border means that thousands of dollars worth of equipment and devices may be stolen by corrupt customs inspectors. "They took the prosthetic feet out of my last box," he says, "the feet."

National Hero

Puckett with actor Salma Hayek in Hollywood.
Puckett with actor Salma Hayek in Hollywood.

In April 2008, Puckett met Kirk Gillon, a freelance journalist who had done occasional work for CNN. Gillon shadowed Puckett on a mission and produced a promotional DVD, which he later submitted to CNN. CNN encouraged Gillon to have Puckett nominated to CNN's 2008 Hero of the Year competition, an annual competition whose winner would be chosen by public votes cast at cnn.com and who would be awarded $100,000 at an awards ceremony that would be nationally broadcast on Thanksgiving.

Gillon couldn't nominate Puckett for the contest because he had previously freelanced for CNN. Instead, Dale Parker, PIPO's office manager, nominated Puckett, who became one of 3,700 nominees from around the world. A blue-ribbon panel, chosen by CNN, reviewed nominees' biographies and selected Puckett to its top 30. In October 2008, the panel selected him to its topten list, guaranteeing PIPO Missions a $25,000 donation and heavy advertising on CNN and cnn.com. Puckett says, "It really shocked me.... I'm just a guy who's trying to help some people and be obedient to the calling that God put on my life."

In early November 2008, a CNN crew traveled with Puckett to Mexico and produced short videos and articles that were featured at cnn.com, where thousands of Americans voted for a Hero of the Year. Puckett was flown to Los Angeles for the filming of the CNN Heroes special, where his top-ten prize was presented by actor Salma Hayek, who grew up in Southern Mexico. Hayek has since expressed interest in becoming involved with his missions.

Puckett wasn't voted CNN Hero of the Year-that honor went to Liz McCartney, a Hurricane Katrina rebuilder. However, being featured in the program brought several thousand extra dollars in donations to his cause and hundreds of e-mail messages and phone calls offering help. Puckett says the $25,000 will pay for mission debts and four to six months of missions, during which he expects to "open doors to the next step for the mission." Puckett says, "Our goal next year is to expand the mission so that many people can participate in it. And to build a clinic-it was always the idea to have a safe, clean, professional environment in which to treat these patients with respect. If we had a nice place, it would really be showing them honor."

Providing a mission in which others can join in the blessings could only be considered a mission of love.

Morgan Stanfield can be reached at

For more information on PIPOS Missions, visit www.pipoinc.com/mexico.htm

Editor's Note: The people profiled in this issue of The O&P EDGE are just a sampling of the numerous individuals and organizations that are doing O&P humanitarian work across the globe. If you have a story that you would like to share, we would love to hear from you. Send your story to