Walk of Life

Walk of Life

4 days, 39 patients, 49 surgeries

The patients came, scores of them.

Carried by family members.

Pushed in makeshift wheelchairs.

Leaning on battered canes and crude crutches.

They all came for the same thing:

Hoping for the chance to walk again.

Operation Walk has been providing orthopedic surgery to underprivileged populations around the world since 1994. The organization, based in Los Angeles, helps physician teams that raise money to travel to areas of the world where such surgeries as knee and hip replacements are only for the rich. Operation Walk makes at least 10 trips a year. The October trip to Managua, Nicaragua, was the first for a Winnipeg orthopedic team. In four days, they performed 49 knee replacements on 39 patients who had made the cut. Ten patients had bilateral surgery — both knees replaced in the same surgery. In such a country, the $2 million in artificial knees and related equipment the Winnipeg group took with them was just a drop in the bucket. But to the patients who walked out of the hospital three days post-surgery, it represents a new life. “Nicaragua is mountainous… When you live in a mountainous country mobility is critical,” said Dr. Dave Heddon, a surgeon on the trip. “They’ve got to go up and down stairs, up and down hills — you try and do that in a wheelchair, or with crutches, or with a walker”. “You just can’t go to work. How do you go to work if you’re as crippled as some of these patients we saw”? Juan Canda is a good example of the patients the team treated. The 55-year-old former gardener hasn’t worked in 10 years, not since his knees gave out. That’s 10 years of relying on his children for support. Some of his six grown kids brought him to the clinic. He was the team’s first bi-lateral surgery. The double operation is performed at Winnipeg’s Concordia Hospital on only the most fit patients — younger, more active, very healthy people — as recovery is very difficult. In Managua, many of the patients have been in so much pain for so long, the surgery itself is a relief. In Canada, patients routinely take a whole cocktail of medications including narcotics, morphine and OxyContin. In Nicaragua? Mostly it’s over-the-counter painkillers, little better than straight acetaminophen. “Some people had been in pain for 10 years, and then after surgery, they take extra-strength Tylenol because their pain before was so great, that they don’t need anything more after,” said nurse Alison Bartel. The Canadian team could see its work’s effect immediately. Juan was able to take his first walk, with much help, the day after his surgery. That is much sooner than most Winnipeg patients are up and attempting to walk. This Operation Walk — a team of Winnipeggers, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and general volunteers — treated 39 patients over nine days, helping people get back on their feet. In a little more than a week, they changed the lives of 39 people and their families. For Juan Canda and his family, it’s a simple tale. He’s back in his garden, standing firmly with the help of two new knees. He’s got his life back.