Two billion people across the globe have no access to medical care. They make up 35% of the world’s population but only 3.5% of surgeries take place in their countries. Many patients in lesser-developed countries have no access to fund costly operations. Oftentimes there are few trained surgeons and/or access to implants and other medical devices.
In May 2017, Operation Walk Carolinas will take its inaugural mission to Cuba, where the team made up of medical staff from OrthoCarolina, Carolinas Healthcare and Novant Health will perform upwards of 50 hip and knee replacements in just a few days. Walter Beaver, MD and Bryan Springer MD, are the founders of “OpWalk Carolinas”. According to Dr. Springer much-needed arthroplasties will help those people be free of a life of pain and disability, and even return to work and provide for their families.
1. When was Operation Walk Carolinas founded?
Dr. Springer: We officially became Operation Walk Carolinas in January 2016 when we obtained 501c3 status under the OrthoCarolina Research Institute as a non-for-profit organization. It was about a 2-year process from the time we decided we wanted to have our own chapter.
2. What made you want to bring Operation Walk to the Carolinas?
Dr. Springer: We had the opportunity to take a small team to Panama with the Operation Walk Denver team in 2015. The experiment was overwhelming and we knew at that moment we had to do this. There was no chapter of Operation Walk in the Southeast. We had a small core group of team members that were committed to bringing this to the Carolinas.
3. Your team chose Cuba for Operation Walk Carolinas' inaugural trip. Why Cuba?
Dr. Springer: You could say Cuba chose us. We knew as a team, we wanted to focus on Central and South America as a large part of our team spoke Spanish. The fact is we were willing to go where the biggest need was. Operation Walk as a national organization has visited Cuba before but it had been a while. The need arose and we responded. We understand how big of a need there is in Cuba. Patients, there have little or no access to joint replacement.
4. Tell us about the patients you'll care for while in Cuba.
Dr. Springer: Unlike the U.S., patients that are treated on mission trips generally have severe deformity and severe crippling arthritis. In the U.S., a patient comes in with joint pain and arthritis that may have affected them for months or years and they generally have access to surgery within six weeks to three months. In places like Cuba, they either don’t have the access to joint replacement or it’s simply not affordable to an average citizen. As such, arthritis goes neglected for years and they typically present with severe deformity. The cases are often much more difficult and challenging that what we see in the U.S.
5. What surgeries will you perform?
Dr. Springer: We will do total hip and total knee replacements. In some cases, we may do revision surgery of patients that had a prior hip or knee replacement that has failed.
6. Why don't people in Cuba have access to this type of care currently?
Dr. Springer: Cuba actually has excellent doctors and healthcare professionals. In the US.., the typical cost of a joint replacement is $60,000-80,000. In these developing countries, that is simply unaffordable. As such, with little access due to cost, there are few surgeons that have the training and experience
7. What will a typical day in Cuba look like for you?
Dr. Springer: It’s exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. We start early and work late. I remember on other trips coming back to the hotel room and collapsing from exhaustion, just to get up and do it again the next day. We have a team of about 45 and plan to do about 50 joint replacements. The conditions are difficult, hot and there is often broken equipment. You have to be flexible. We are so used to having our days so scripted by our daily routine now, and the days on these trips are anything but. I can tell you that you walk out of the hospital at the end of every day with a tremendous of satisfaction and accomplishment.
8. Are you bringing your own supplies?
Dr. Springer: We don’t use so much as a Band-aid from the hospital where we work. We bring everything with us from the implants to the hand scrub. We will ship about 10,000 pounds of cargo to Cuba ahead of our trip.
9. Who makes up the rest of your team?
Dr. Springer: Surgeons, medical doctors, anesthesia, physical therapists, scrub techs, nurses, logistical coordinators, translators, volunteers, implant reps and more. We have a full team to cover all aspects of the delivery of care.
10. Who pays for you to get there?
Dr. Springer: We do. It’s 100% voluntary and the entire mission is based on fundraising. Each trip costs us about $150,000. Each team member has to raise $1,000 and the rest is raised through fundraising and donations.
11. What do you think people would be surprised to know about a mission like Operation Walk Carolina's trip to Cuba?
Dr. Springer: I think the planning that goes into it. The money, the supplies, and the logistics. It takes well over a year just to plan one trip. Being a part of Operation Walk Carolinas is so much more than just one trip: it’s about being a part of a team and working together for a common cause.
12. What's something about this whole project that scares you?
Dr. Springer: Turning away patients. When we arrive we will screen over 100 patients. From that, we have to pick 50 that we can operate on. If it was up to me, I would like to operate on all 100 but we simply don’t have the time, the money and the equipment to do 100 surgeries. I think about all the patients that have waited so long in pain to have a joint replacement and to have to turn them away. That is what scares me.
13. Why is Operation Walk Carolinas important to you?
Dr. Springer: It’s hard to describe the feeling you have when you go on a mission trip. I truly believe it’s so important to take the talents that everyone on the team has and share them with the world.
These trips challenge everyone to step out of their comfort zone and do something they never thought they would do and go somewhere they never thought they would go.
This will be a life-changing experience for the team and it will be a life-saving experience for the patients. Not only will be just performing surgery but our nurses will be educating their nurses, our therapist educating their therapist and our doctors educating their doctors.
Bryan Springer, MD is a hip and knee surgeon with OrthoCarolina’s Hip and Knee Center.
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