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Plum nurses help Guatemalan patients debilitated by disease, poverty

| Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009

Sue Caldwell and Tori Rock each took a week of vacation and eagerly packed their bags for Antigua, Guatemala, in late August.

But they had no need for beachwear and sunscreen.

The two nurses from Plum took a week off work to volunteer for a group that traveled to the Central American country to perform hip and knee replacements on people who could not afford the procedures otherwise.

Operation Walk is a private, nonprofit volunteer medical services organization started in 1995 by Dr. Lawrence D. Dorr, a joint replacement surgeon in Los Angeles.

The group provides treatment for patients in developing countries who don't have access to care for arthritis and other debilitating bone and joint conditions.

On a teaching trip to Russia, Dorr had the idea that one of the best ways to teach physicians was to demonstrate the surgery. He put together a team of surgeons, internal medicine doctors, anesthesiologists, nurses and physical therapists and planned his first Operation Walk trip to Havana, Cuba.

It was a success, with the team operating on 45 joints during a three-day period. Over the next decade, two Operation Walk teams operated six times in Cuba, helping more than 250 patients.

"I always wanted to do a mission trip," said Caldwell, 52, a surgical nurse at the West Penn Hospital-Forbes Regional Campus in Monroeville. "I wanted to take my faith and my profession out of my country and help people."

The trip was a perfect opportunity for Rock, 45, a nurse at Magee-Womens Hospital in Oakland.

"I always wanted to be in the Peace Corps," Rock said. "And I love traveling. The patients were wonderful."

The trip was organized by Dr. Anthony DiGioia, an orthopedic surgeon at Magee. Pittsburgh is the 11th city in the United States to come on board with an Operation Walk group, Caldwell said. Last month's trip was the first for the Pittsburgh chapter.

An Operation Walk group from Los Angeles led by Dorr taught the Pittsburgh group the surgical techniques. Next year, the Pittsburgh group, consisting of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists and physical therapists from hospitals in the Pittsburgh area, will instruct another Operation Walk group.

Fundraising and donations pay for the trip and all the medical supplies, including the joints.

The Pittsburgh group, consisting of 23 health care professionals, worked in conjunction with the Los Angeles group and Dorr.

"People live in cement block houses with tin roofs and no doors," Caldwell said. "Laundry is hanging on clothes lines, and dogs are running everywhere."

The nurses worked 12-hour shifts at the Santo Hermano Pedro hospital, which serves as an orphanage and a home for the mentally and physically challenged.

Rock said the patients who were scheduled to undergo surgery appreciated the efforts of the American group.

"When we walked in on the first day, they applauded us," Rock said.

The patients did not complain after surgery.

"They would quietly lie there and cry," Rock said. "They were so appreciative. They kept saying 'gracias' and 'you are angels.' "

Caldwell said the group set a record on one day, performing 22 joint replacements. Overall, the group replaced 63 joints on 53 patients.

Caldwell, who attended elementary school with DiGioia at St. Bartholomew in Penn Hills, at one point said she turned to the doctor in the operating room and said, "Sister Angela (former principal) would be proud."

Caldwell and Rock have volunteered to go back to Antigua in August.

"It makes you feel good to give back," Caldwell said.

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