Volunteer docs help people walk in Caribbean

April 6, 2012
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LMA—Volunteer surgeons, nurses and physical therapists from institutions all over the Longwood Medical Area (LMA) headed down to the Caribbean last month, providing free hip and knee replacements to impoverished patients.

Over 50 LMA-based Operation Walk Boston volunteers went to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, some for less than a week, others for over two weeks, to give 47 patients new knees and hips.

By the last day of the visit, patients were literally singing for joy.

“We had a patient this year, a twin knee replacement, who started singing a church hymn as she walked down the hall two days after her surgery,” physical therapist Carolyn Beagan said. “She wanted all the other patients and staff to know how happy she was.”

“It was really beautiful. Ramona really set the tone for the trip,” nurse Adriana Cecchini said.

“They don’t ask for a lot, those patients. They live with pain for most of their lives and we come along and fix the pain for them,” nurse and mission resource manager Debbie Pitts said. “When I look at out patients here in the U.S., I think they’re so lucky to have all that we have here.”

The volunteers give up their vacation time for the project. Some of them work as many as 16 hours in day for several days in a row.

“It’s a unique calling. [The volunteers] do it because they love it,” Cecchini said.

“There are a lot of poor people that have no way to get medical care. They go without. They need their money to buy food. A lot of them are crippled. They can’t work, they can’t support their family. This helps them get back on track, to take care of their families and their lives,” Pitts said.

The patients’ problems are as varied as they are, from congenital defects to extreme arthritis. The volunteers mostly come from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said Thomas Thornhill, chief executive officer and founder of Boston Operation Walk. There are volunteers from New England Baptist, Massachusetts General and Tufts hospitals, too.

“It’s such a unique dynamic,” Cecchini said. “The patients are in such great need and we have the ability to work with such a strong and dedicated staff that really dedicates itself to the patients.”

The team includes nurses, anesthesiologists, orthopedic surgeons, pharmacists, medical students and physical therapists as well as some non-medical volunteers.

“It’s a wide cross-section of staff,” Thornhill said.

Beyond the surgeries, the team goes ready to teach: there is a whole day of clinics for past patients to get their yearly check-ups and workshops for local medical staff, nurse Barbara Aggouras said. The volunteers also coordinate with local hospital staff to teach them proper care for the replacement patients.

The American nurses were also partnered with Dominican nurses to share care protocols.

“It’s so we can have a broader spectrum of care,” Cecchini said of learning Dominican methods and teaching American ones. “The learning goes both ways.”

Dominican medical schools can also send along more volunteers, Pitts said. They help in translating, as not everyone on the Operation Walk team speaks Spanish, she said.

Operation Walk Boston is one of nearly a dozen Operation Walk non-profit programs. Operation Walk was first founded in Los Angeles in 1995.

More information about the trip is available at operationwalkboston.blogspot.com.

Operation Walk volunteers—local and Santo Domingo-based—pose with a patient on the trip’s last day, March 27. (from left) Adianez Santiago, a local volunteer and medical student; Trevor Pitts, an Operation Walk Boston volunteer; “Nikita,” a local volunteer and medical student; Edward S. Sanchez, a local volunteer and physician assistant; and Jillian Ng, an Operation Walk Boston physical therapist. (Courtesy Photo)