Cecilia Cayton was helping a woman named Angela prepare for her journey home. Angela was fresh off hip replacement surgery and about to board a bus.
“I heard, ‘Oh, they live far, they’re not from the area,’” said Cayton, one of the nurses who treated Angela. “But then I asked this one lady, in Spanish, ‘How far?’ I thought she might say a couple of hours. But she said, ‘Nine hours.’ Nine hours! She just had a hip replacement!” And then she said, “‘It’s no problem. That’s how we do things; we’ll make it through.’”
Cayton, a La Cañada Flintridge resident and registered nurse at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, was for the first time a member of the Operation Walk team that recently traveled to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where the team treated 34 people and performed 48 joint replacement surgeries at no cost to the patients.
She made the trip in October with Dr. Paul Gilbert, another LCF resident and an orthopedic surgeon at USC-VHH, who completed his 11th Operation Walk mission. Their USC-VHH colleagues Vivienne Uytana, a physical therapist, and Julie Anderson, an RN, also made the trip. (Anderson is an Operation Walk veteran, she said, of at least 14 excursions.)
For 20 years, Operation Walk has brought medical professionals together on annual missionary trips to perform much-needed surgeries on people in 20 developing countries, including Cuba, Guatemala, Nepal, Nicaragua, Tanzania, Vietnam and, this year, Honduras.
The USC-VHH quartet joined a crew of surgeons, internal medicine doctors, anesthesiologists, nurses and volunteers from California, Australia and the host country as they spent a week caring for patients on broken-down beds inside a pair of large air-conditioned tents behind a local hospital.
“It was really remote and rustic,” Gilbert said. “But a lot of the patients, that’s the best housing they’ve had. It had air-conditioning, so, for them, this was awesome.”
Their charges on this mission also included a tall, fourth-year medical student who required complicated hip replacements after having been in a car accident.
“Now, not only is he going to be able to go into the field of medicine, he can run if there’s an emergency, he can stand in the operating room, he doesn’t have to go into a sedentary physical job because he can’t walk,” Anderson said. “We’ve given him an opportunity to fulfill a dream: We’re helping him help patients.”
They also assisted a woman who had a hip replacement and who recently adopted a baby following a difficult string of miscarriages.
“She said she sings in a choir in her church in a wheelchair, and her goal was to sing standing up,” Cayton said. “And she wanted to be able to be active with her baby as the baby grows up. And one day, Dr. Larry Dorr, the founder, was making his rounds and he said to her, ‘You go home and hold your baby and play with your baby.’
“When I heard that, I burst into tears.”
“You see many people cry during a day. It’s beautiful,” said Chris Gilbert, the surgeon’s son and a La Cañada High School graduate who has his sights set on a career as a physician’s assistant following his volunteer experiences with Operation Walk in Nicaragua, Vietnam and Honduras.
His older brother, James, and their mom, Cindy, also have made several trips with Paul Gilbert to assist on Operation Walk, an organization that was founded by Dorr, a former LCF resident, in 1996.
A pioneer in joint replacement surgery, Dorr was inspired while on a teaching trip to Russia decades ago when he realized he could best teach other physicians by demonstrating — rather than describing — the surgeries.
So he recruited a team of surgeons, internal medicine doctors and anesthesiologists and arranged for a trip to Havana, Cuba. After eight months of prep, that first Operation was a success: 45 joints were replaced in three days.
“We sit on the ward after dinner and just talk to these people from rural villages about what their life is like and what it means to them to get their knee replaced,” Paul Gilbert said. “If they can’t walk, if they can’t farm, if they can’t contribute to the family, then they’re a real burden to their family. Because there’s no social backup, so giving them the ability to walk again, over and over again, they say, ‘You gave us our life back.’
“How can that not touch your heart?”
Gilbert — who will operate on six patients from throughout the region in a local Operation Walk in early December — credited USC-VHH for its support on this trip to Honduras.
The hospital donated supplies and funded all the anesthesia drugs and pain-killers used on the mission and administrators there also encouraged Gilbert and his team to spend a week away to help strangers in a distant land.
“It’s really important for people to know that Julie and I, and Vivienne and Dr. Gilbert, all went to represent Verdugo Hills Hospital,” Cayton said. “And it’s great to represent a community; I’m a La Cañada resident and I went there to also represent not only Verdugo Hills, but also the La Cañada Flintridge community.”
Gilbert said Operation Walk has benefitted from many donors in LCF, generous people who contribute funds for an organization with modest overhead of 5% or less.
Often, he said, the program’s donors do more than donate. They’re regulars on the missions, including this year, when one donor spent her stay painting patients’ nails and cleaning medical instruments and then stepped in when she heard of the nine-hour bus ride.
“When she heard Angela’s story, she paid for her to go home in a taxi,” Anderson said.
For more information, visit operationwalk.org.