“Operation Walk” founder honored
Brings high-quality orthopaedic care to disadvantaged
By Carolyn Rogers
To hundreds of impoverished and uninsured people around the world who suffer from debilitating arthritis, orthopaedic surgeon Lawrence D. Dorr, MD, and his colleagues are nothing less than miracle-workers.
“You look into the eyes of these people and it’s like a miracle dropped out of the sky for them,” says Dr. Dorr, a renowned joint replacement surgeon and founder of the not-for-profit volunteer organization, “Operation Walk.”
From the Nicaraguan woman whose leg was crushed during an earthquake, to an elderly woman in Nepal so crippled by arthritis she could barely get out of bed, Dr. Dorr’s charitable work has brought the gift of mobility and relief from pain to disadvantaged people as far away as China, Cuba and the Philippines, and as close to home as Los Angeles.
In recognition of the positive impact his efforts have had on the lives and musculoskeletal health of so many people, Dr. Dorr will receive the Academy’s sixth annual Humanitarian Award at the upcoming 2005 Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The award honors AAOS fellows who have distinguished themselves through outstanding musculoskeletal-related humanitarian activities in the United States or abroad. The award, along with a $5,000 donation, will be presented to Dr. Dorr on Feb. 24 during the Annual Meeting.
Creating “Operation Walk”
Dr. Dorr’s humanitarian efforts date back to 1994, when he and his medical team were invited to a hospital in St. Petersburg, Russia, to discuss some of the latest techniques in joint replacements and to operate on six patients. Upon returning to the United States, Dr. Dorr felt a deep desire to repeat the experience on a larger scale, in countries where the needs might be even greater.
“I realized there were so many doctors who needed the education and so many patients who needed the operations,” he says. “I thought, ‘why can’t we do this on a bigger scale to help people like those in Russia who can’t afford the surgery, or who don’t have the tools or means to do the operation?’”
So he went to work—enlisting a team of volunteers, soliciting donations of medical equipment, and ultimately establishing “Operation Walk” as a private, not-for-profit, volunteer medical services organization.
Operation Walk’s primary mission is to provide free total hip and knee replacements for patients in developing countries, and in the United States, who would otherwise not have access to these life-improving operations. Also crucial to its mission is the education of local physicians, therapists and nurses on the most advanced treatments and surgical techniques for diseases of the hip and knee joints.
Bringing hope to Cuba
The humanitarian group’s first mission—to Cuba—was an enormous undertaking and a “remarkable learning experience,” recalls Dr. Dorr.
In addition to achieving their initial goal of performing nearly 50 joint replacements, the team of 28 volunteers trained more than 100 physicians, nurses and physical therapists in joint replacement techniques. The physicians had come from all over Cuba to watch and assist with the surgeries so they could later carry out the techniques themselves.
“In third-world countries where economic situations are dire, as they are in Cuba, the disabled become the discarded,” says Dr. Dorr. “Our goal was to help these people regain their ability to live as productive members of society.”
By the end of the two-week medical mission, many patients were on their feet, taking their first steps free from their previously crippling conditions.
“It was inspiring for everyone on the team,” Dr. Dorr says.
Since that first trip, Operation Walk has treated more then 400 patients in eight countries—including Guatemala, Nepal, Peru, the Philippines, China and Nicaragua. All services are provided at no cost to the patients—including the preoperative care, the surgery with implants, postoperative medications and therapy.
Man on a mission
“Dr. Dorr has helped hundreds, if not thousands, of patients with crippling arthritis to restore function,” says John J. Callaghan, MD, the Lawrence & Marilyn Dorr Chair in Hip Reconstruction and Research at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. “Much of his free time during the year is spent trying to find support—both financial and volunteer—for this project.”
Each one- to two-week medical mission requires 38 to 40 volunteers, including orthopaedic surgeons, anesthesiologists, internists, physical therapists, nurses, surgical technicians, central supply people, electricians and nursing support staff—all of whom donate their time. Even so, the trips are extremely costly. In all, the costs of lodging, food, implants, tools, medicines, dressings, gowns, other medical supplies, patient hospitalization expenses and cargo shipping run about $200,000 per mission.
For the first three to four years, the project was financed entirely by Dr. Dorr, and any funds he was personally able to raise.
Today, all of the materials used on the missions, including the implants, are either donated by orthopaedic companies or purchased by funds raised for Operation Walk, which was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization in 2001. In addition to an annual fundraising event, the group receives financial support through a number of donors, including a 5-year, $200,000-a-year grant from the Skirball Foundation.
Before each mission, the pre-selected patients undergo medical evaluations and have X-rays taken. Test results and X-rays are sent to Operation Walk for an initial screening.
Once they arrive in the country of mission, the visiting surgeons team up with local surgeons to evaluate each patient, discuss surgical options and plan the surgery schedule.
On each mission, the doctors perform about 40 knee or hip replacements, which often exceeds the number of operations performed in an entire year by that medical center. Operation Walk surgeons always operate alongside a local surgeon, and they install a television camera, monitor and microphone so that local physicians can watch and ask questions as the operation is taking place.
Following surgery, nurses and physical therapists work alongside their local counterparts to ensure that proper techniques will be followed for the next six weeks. They work not only with patients, but also their families, who will likely be the patients’ primary caregivers after leaving the hospital. Great care is taken to explain and demonstrate proper procedures for rehabilitation.
Operation Walk often returns to the same countries. Cuba, for example, has been the site of four missions in the past eight years. This practice allows for follow-up care for the patients when needed, as well as continuing education for the local physicians, Dr. Dorr explains.
Operation Walk L.A.
In addition to the trips abroad, the organization has undertaken domestic missions in Southern California on four occasions. In these one-day “surgery marathons,” the medical team performs between 12 and 15 knee and hip replacements. Patients selected for these missions have no insurance and no financial ability to pay for the operation.
The local patients are “absolutely no less appreciative,” he says. “They bring tears to your eyes when they thank you, they’re so grateful.”
A legacy of giving
Almost every physician or health care worker who has taken part in one of the Operation Walk missions describes it as the biggest thrill they’ve had in medicine, Dr. Dorr says.
“Everyone who participates in this program benefits from the learning, teaching, sharing and caring that has been developed by Dr. Dorr,” says Merrill A. Ritter, MD, professor of orthopaedics at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. “The staff of Operation Walk has developed an undying love and loyalty for him…This can only be reflected in the lives of those who come to work, and those who come for his help.”
Inspired by Dr. Dorr’s example, Operation Walk has expanded to include a team in Indiana, under the leadership of Dr. Ritter; a Denver team directed by Douglas A. Dennis, MD; a Houston team with participation through Brian S. Parsley, MD; and a Florida team under the direction of Carlos J. Lavernia, MD, and Kenneth A. Gustke, MD.
“Operation Walk is a miracle,” says Dr. Dorr. “Surely for those who never thought they’d walk again and now can, and certainly for the local physicians and nurses whose newfound skills can help others, but also for our staff and volunteers, who are genuinely and deeply reminded that life’s greatest joy is in giving.”
In a letter nominating Dr. Dorr for the Humanitarian Award, Dr. Callaghan suggested that Dr. Dorr’s father—a small-town Iowa Methodist minister—may have helped instill some of his son’s compassionate, altruistic qualities.
Dr. Dorr doesn’t disagree.
“My dad always wanted to be a missionary,” he recalls. “I guess in a way, I’m fulfilling his dreams.”
For more information about Operation Walk, visit the organization’s Web site at http://www.operationwalk.org/