Volunteer service donating surgeries

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Pittsburgh is getting a new Thanksgiving tradition, made out of titanium.

A nonprofit volunteer medical service called Operation Walk Pittsburgh gave three people from the region brand new knees on Tuesday, at no charge to the patients. Everything -- the devices, surgeries, medications, hospital stays and 20 sessions of rehabilitation at home -- is being donated.

Tony DiGioia, medical director of the orthopedic program at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and founder of Operation Walk Pittsburgh, said the team hopes to do the same thing next Thanksgiving for eight to 10 local residents who need hip or knee replacements but cannot afford the $100,000 cost.

"Our goal is to do it every Thanksgiving from now on," he said.

This year's recipients consider it a fine idea for an annual event.

Take Susan Bates-Atallah, 62, of the West End. She works two part-time jobs that have her on her feet all day. The arthritis in her knee was becoming unbearable, but she couldn't afford to miss a shift at Macy's Downtown or waitressing at the Consol Energy Center during hockey games.

With no health insurance, and earning slightly too much to qualify for medical assistance, Ms. Bates-Atallah felt her only option was to work through the pain, which made her knee worse.

Debbie Wilson, 51, of Morgantown, W.Va., was in a similar fix. She works full time as a private housekeeper for a family of seven in a three-story house, but doesn't earn enough to afford health insurance.

The pain in her knee was so bad, she sometimes needed a walker to get out of bed, and it could take her hours to get going in the mornings. Yet she kept working out of necessity and living with the pain.

Then there's Bill Simpson, 61, of Sharpsburg. A former truck driver who stopped working due to chronic pain in his knees and back, he lives on disability and is on the waiting list for medical assistance. It would be great, he said, if he could just walk his dogs, Princess and Little One, without pain.

All three recipients are recuperating today at Magee. On Wednesday they had their first physical therapy sessions, and nobody was complaining about the prospect of spending Thanksgiving in the hospital.

"This is the best thing that could have happened to me," Ms. Bates-Atallah said.

"I'm still paying off the cortisone shots I got last year," said Ms. Wilson. "If this helps, I'll be happy."

Added Mr. Simpson, "This knee is more important than the holiday. I can get turkey any time."

As it happens, the turkey will come on Friday, when Operation Walk Pittsburgh will arrange a full Thanksgiving lunch at Magee for the patients and their families, and then release them to continue rehab at home.

The knees are made of titanium and cobalt chrome, with a plastic spacer acting as artificial cartilage. The devices' longevity depends on wear and tear, but 85 percent of recipients still have their original knee replacement at 18 to 20 years.

Magee physical therapist Becky Carter said most patients are pain-free and walking on their own at their one-month appointment. If they play tennis or bike, they could be back on track in three to six months. It can, however, take a full year for the soft tissue to fully heal.

The three patients were operated on by different orthopedic surgeons from UPMC: Brian Hamlin of Magee operated on Ms. Wilson; Anton Plakseychuk worked on Mr. Simpson; and Dr. DiGioia did Ms. Bates-Atallah. Anesthesiologist Chris Edelmann also donated services for all three patients, as did the nurses and all the other medical personnel.

Operation Walk was founded in 1994 by Dr. Lawrence Dorr of Los Angeles, and has provided knee and hip replacements for thousands of patients in a dozen countries where advanced care is not available. In the process, the medical teams train in-country health professionals in the latest treatments and techniques.

The teams also have done surgeries in the U.S. for those who cannot afford them. This year there was a concerted effort in several cities to treat groups of patients at home during Thanksgiving week as a way of raising awareness of the program.

Operation Walk Pittsburgh has completed two journeys to Guatemala, with up to 53 team members from different hospital systems in the region treating 50 to 60 patients in a week each time.

"It's really a Pittsburgh-wide effort," Dr. DiGioia said.

The trips abroad depend on donations, he said -- every instrument, drug and bit of equipment has to be flown in with the medical personnel. To raise the money, the program is promoting Walk it Forward, which seeks donations from people who have had joint replacements and would like to help others.

To apply to be considered for a free knee or hip replacement next year as part of Operation Walk Pittsburgh, e-mail Janice Harmon, jharmon@mail.magee.edu, or call 412-641-8643.

For more information about Operation Walk Pittsburgh, or to make a donation, go to www.operationwalkpgh.org.

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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