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Relief Trip to NicaraguaOrthopedic surgeon Dr. Gerard Engh leads humanitarian effort.

By Gerald A. Fill Thursday, August 18, 2011  –  Connection Newspapers

Mount Vernon Hospital Dr. Gerard Engh, a national leader in hip and knee replacement surgery, and his volunteer team, conducted a “packing session” on Saturday, Aug. 13, in order to ship medical-surgical equipment and supplies by the U.S. military to Managua, Nicaragua.

The Operation Walk Virginia volunteer team of 47 doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists and others will be in Nicaragua from Oct. 8-15 and are prepared to perform 20 hip replacements and 45 knee replacements. It is the fifth humanitarian medical relief trip led by Engh to a developing country under the sponsorship of the non profit organization, Operation Walk Virginia.

 The “packing session” was one of several preliminary steps required for the volunteer team to successfully travel for the week in October. The other steps are the fundraising necessary to cover travel, room, and board expenses, and the planning for and cost of sending an advance medical team to screen, x-ray, and select potential surgical patients, and reserve rooms and transportation for use by the team once they arrive. The x-rays are brought back to the U.S. for further study and for preparations for the surgical procedure.

The U.S. military ships the medical equipment and supplies to Managua for free. The packages are stored and inventoried in containers for shipment and includes electrical equipment, rechargeable batteries, surgical anesthesia kits, surgical instruments, extremity packs, implants for hips and knees, operating room equipment, sheets, bedding, bedside commodes, crutches and fans.

Volunteers pointed out that the temperature at the hospital they will be using in Managua reaches 96 degrees F. The hospital has no air conditioning. Donations collected by Operation Walk Virginia total approximately $150,000, and will be used to pay for travel expenses, room, board, and supplies. All the doctors pay their own way. In the past Operation Walk Virginia has traveled to Ecuador twice and to Nicaragua twice. This will be the third trip to Nicaragua.

 Q&A with Dr. Gerard Engh

 Q: Why are you going to Nicaragua to perform hip and knee replacement surgery? Why not elsewhere in the developing world?

A: The patients we treat have absolutely no hope of getting a hip or knee replacement. They have no access to this kind of specialty surgery and in most cases without this surgical service the patients we select will have great difficulty walking because of pain. Nicaragua is a very poor country that does not have this kind of medical specialty, and that is why we chose to go there. The need is enormous elsewhere in the world, but for us this is doable financially and logistically and makes practical sense.

Q: How do you select the patients you serve?

A: Our trip is for one week. Sixty-five surgeries, plus follow-up on past procedures makes for a very busy week in less than ideal hospital conditions. We prepare for the trip by sending an advance medical team to the city. They examine and screen patients and take X-rays which are then reviewed by us as part of the preparations. Of course there are far more patients in need then we can accommodate in a week. When we arrive, there a large numbers of patients waiting for a chance to be helped. It always presents a problem for us. Our selection is based on a lack of ability to pay for such a service and the practicality of what we can do for them. Some have such complex problems or that have been neglected for such a long period of time that our field surgical team cannot help them practically speaking. It is the toughest emotional and technical aspect of what we do; to decide on who we are going to help. There is just so much that we can do unfortunately.

Q. Why make this extraordinary effort to help the poor in Nicaragua?

A. I studied to become a doctor because I wanted to help those in need. It is what I do, I am effective in the specialty I have chosen, and I and the rest of our dedicated volunteers receive enormous gratification from helping patients who, but for this service, would have no hope of rehabilitation. Without our surgical service the people we see would have no expectation and no opportunity to be helped, probably ever. Our hip and knee replacements are transformational for these needy people. Also, it gives all of us an opportunity to practice positive U.S. medical diplomacy and by our example demonstrate to the needy patients in this and other countries that Americans care enough to provide this kind of humanitarian medical relief.

Q. You plan something like this here at the Inova Mount Vernon Hospital later this year. Could you please describe the plans?

A. We plan an Operation Walk America on Dec. 2 with the support of Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. It will be an all day event in which we will perform hip and knee replacement surgery for those patients we select that are registered at free clinics in Northern Virginia. We are in the early planning stage for that day and more details will be announced later in the year.

Right now we are focusing on the logistics and plans to make our Oct. 8-15 trip to Nicaragua a success. Also, you may be interested in knowing that our organization is one of 15 Operation Walk organizations located in different parts of the U.S. that perform similar humanitarian assistance to developing countries.