In the city of Higuey in the Dominican Republic, 62-year-old Nela Garcia de Gonzalez sat confined in her second-floor home on most days. “Coming down the stairs was so difficult that I didn’t leave very much,” she recalls. “I couldn’t shower, and if I ever dropped anything, I couldn’t pick it up.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Familia Ramirez (pictured above) faced similar problems. Undiagnosed rheumatoid arthritis had destroyed the cartilage in her hip, making it difficult for her to take care of herself. Both women needed new joints, but neither could afford them—and basic healthcare in the Dominican Republic doesn’t cover joint replacements. To address the growing problem of chronic disability, Operation Walk Boston, led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), joined forces with medical staff at the Hospital General de La Plaza de la Salud in Santo Domingo. Each spring, more than 50 volunteers from Boston-area hospitals travel to the Dominican Republic for a week to perform free joint replacements for patients like Familia and Nela.
For Familia, a new hip was life altering. “I’m going to be a normal person again,” she smiled. “I won’t need help anymore. I’ll be able to sit, climb stairs, and put on my clothes all by myself.” Nela would also walk from the hospital with new goals. “I always loved the beach, and now, with my new knees, I’m going to the beach,” she beamed.
“Our goal with Operation Walk is not just to give patients shiny new joints,” says Thomas Thornhill, MD, chairman of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at BWH. “It’s to give them a new life.” Thornhill, who founded the Boston chapter of Operation Walk in 2007, first traveled with Operation Walk Denver on a mission to Panama. Since then, he has conducted seven “Op Walk” Boston missions to the Dominican Republic to operate on patients and train local surgeons to do the same.
“He has a bold and ambitious vision,” says Richard Scott, MD, professor of Orthopedic Surgery at Harvard Medical School. Scott, who co-founded Operation Walk Boston, traveled on the first four missions, and applauds Thornhill’s commitment. “Tom has a real passion for this, and he’s a very good organizer and leader. He’s been able to take a large number of physicians, physical therapists, anesthesiologists, nurses, and medical students and turn them into a highly compatible group, and he’s largely responsible for making it all work so smoothly.”
Thornhill is quick to directly credit the many volunteers who, in one week, perform joint replacements for between 45 and 50 patients by working 14-hour days. “This is no vacation,” he notes. “It’s a grueling schedule, no one is paid, and these volunteers don’t come to relax. It’s a testament to the ethos of this mission.”
For more on Operation Walk Boston, visit the team’s blog at operationwalkboston.blogspot.com.