10/1/2009 12:00:00 AM by: Julie E. Williamson
A jog through the neighborhood; carefree play with the pets or kids; even a leisurely stroll to the market: All are activities that many of us take for granted on any given day. But for those with hips or knees ravaged by arthritis, each step can be a painful reminder of the condition - and just how difficult it is to maintain quality of life when pain and stiffness are an everyday presence.
For individuals suffering from debilitating diseases in poverty-stricken regions of the world, the challenges are even greater. Not only is physical labor the only way for many residents to earn a living and provide for their families - with walking the primary, if not sole, mode of transportation - a lack of money and availability of proper care makes it all but impossible for many to ease their suffering.
Fortunately, with the assistance of a volunteer medical services organization called Operation Walk, and the dedication of scores of caring healthcare professionals who are willing to travel the globe to provide care to those in need, it is possible for individuals to regain their function and reclaim their quality of life.
Craig Della Valle, MD, is among Operation Walk's many volunteers who have taken the steps to make a difference. An orthopedic surgeon at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center, he has traveled with Operation Walk Chicago (one of the seven cities affiliated with the Operation Walk organization) to Nicaragua, Peru and India - performing hip and knee replacement procedures to those suffering from debilitating joint diseases. He has also ventured to Nigeria on a "homegrown" healthcare mission trip that was unaffiliated with Operation Walk.
"These trips are very satisfying. Almost anyone who works in healthcare chose the profession because they had a desire to help people," reflects Della Valle. "There is something fundamentally different, though, about participating in a program where the care is provided for free. It's healthcare in its purest form, and to me, there's something very rewarding about that."
For their most recent trip to Pune, India, the team performed approximately 60 total knee replacements on patients who were unable to afford the services.
"There are a few knee replacements done at this charity hospital, however, not many patients can afford them and experience with the surgical technique is limited," explains Della Valle. Aside from the procedures themselves, the Operation Walk volunteers educated the local physicians in surgical techniques and perioperative care. "We typically see much higher case complexity on these trips as arthritis care is limited. Arthritis care is given a back seat to other health problems."
Della Valle finds the camaraderie that's fostered by these medical missions to be especially rewarding. Surgeons, internal medicine physicians, anesthesia professionals, surgical and floor nurses, physical therapists, and individuals who prepare the instruments all play integral roles in the missions.
"We go with a group of people and it's very fun, even though it's also a lot of work - and some of the locations are very [treacherous]," he says. The trip to India, for example, came shortly on the heels of a terrorist bombing in Mumbai, but the sense of teamwork - and the focus on the patients at hand - helped ease concerns.
The missions have also helped forge a lasting bond between other surgical services professionals at Rush University Medical Center. As part of Operation Walk Chicago, Della Valle has traveled with OR nurse Denise Feldman, RN, as well as two nurses who work with Della Valle in his office. "It's a terrific teambuilding experience. We have created a bond and a friendship that reaches beyond the jobs we do here [in Chicago]."
Of course, it's the positive patient outcomes that truly make Della Valle - and the other repeat volunteers - want to keep coming back for more. Della Valle recently made a follow-up visit to Peru to assess the status of the patients treated under Operation Walk.
"When you see patients who first came to us in a wheelchair now able to be very functional, that's such a great feeling," he says. "It improves their quality of life significantly - and that's something that not only affects the patients and their families, but also their neighbors and other members of their communities. It's a great thing to be able to give the gift of hope."
That gift does come at a hefty price, however. A weeklong mission trip can cost upward of $100,000 to $200,000. Fundraising events help offset the travel and other expenses, and play a key role in helping Operation Walk continue its services to those in need. "Finding volunteers willing to donate their time for these trips is easy, but fundraising is the hard part," says Della Valle. "It isn't cheap and it takes an awful lot to make these trips happen."
But it's well worth the effort, he stresses. "Being a part of these life-changing missions is a major life experience. The people you're able to help and the lives you're able to touch - that's something you take with you [forever]."
Operation Walk: The Basics
Operation Walk is a private, not-for-profit, organization that provides free surgical treatment for patients in developing countries (and occasionally in the U.S.), who have no access to life-improving care for arthritis or other debilitating bone and joint conditions.
Operation Walk also educates in-country orthopedic surgeons, nurses, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals on the most advanced treatments and surgical techniques for diseases of the hip and knee joints. This is done in conjunction with surgeries to help create a lasting contribution to patient care in developing countries.
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