The moment a physically disabled patient can stand and walk for the first time without pain is one that Dr. Lawrence Dorr never tires of witnessing.
As an international leader in the field of orthopedics, Dorr has sought to give that gift of mobility and hope to as many as possible, including those who otherwise would never be able to afford it, in some of the most remote places of the world. Through Operation Walk, Dorr found the vehicle that would take him around the globe and change lives — not just of those able to walk again, but of everyone who shares in the experience.
“The smiles that spread across their faces are something you never forget — their whole face just lights up,” said Dorr, who founded the organization in 1994 with just a small medical team to perform free knee and hip replacements. “For a person who goes from being completely dependent on others to having that independence again, it’s an incredibly uplifting thing.”
Now, Operation Walk has performed some 12,000 surgeries across 12 countries and has about 20 chapters across the U.S., and in Canada, Ireland and Greece. The nonprofit, now called Operation Walk Los Angeles to distinguish it from the other chapters, is also working on developing a national headquarters to be run through the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons.
“I think we’ve moved on from our small ‘mom and pop’ operation,” Dorr said during a recent interview in his Pasadena home, noting that the national presence will make it easier for people to begin their own chapters and have a central place to get information about countries they might wish to visit.
“Anything we can do to grow the operation and help more people is fantastic,” he added. “These people go from being crippled to walking again … it’s something they never thought would happen. Many are too poor to ever have afforded to travel to a place to get the surgery, much less pay for the surgery itself. For them, it’s kind of like a miracle drops out of the sky.”
A lot goes into just one medical trip, which can involve a team of up to 60, including surgeons, nurses, physical therapists, anesthesiologists and badly needed “lay” volunteers to help with the transportation. The nonprofit takes all of its operating equipment “down to the last Band-Aid,” Dorr said, and that can add up to 9,000 pounds of medical supplies.
The trips are often fraught with challenges, with many of the target countries lacking sufficient infrastructure to support hospitals. On one trip to the Philippines, Dorr recalled, the power went out in the middle of a surgery, so he did the knee replacement with the nurse holding a flashlight over his shoulder. On a trip to Nepal, there was no power from the get-go, so Dorr did everything with manual instruments, forgoing the usual power saws and drills.
“You really learn how to make decisions on the fly, how to improvise,” he noted. “We were shocked at first to see the conditions in some of these places.”
The idea of Operation Walk came to Dorr during a medical teaching trip to Russia, where at a Moscow hospital “there were weeds up to my knees.” The other doctors were hungry for the newest operating expertise, and he came away thinking that if a country as powerful as Russia couldn’t support first-rate hip and knee replacements, other poorer nations must fare far worse.
The team’s first trip to Cuba was an eye-opener, Dorr recounted, after the group found that the hospital’s sterilization process was not correct. After much negotiation, the hospital stationed a soldier at each machine to watch the team as it tried to correct the system. Going forward, Dorr learned that navigating the politics turned out to be just as tricky as getting the medical trip into place. Bribes or “tariffs” often were requested to allow the medical supplies to go through customs.
Once, the team tried to do a trip to Mexico, but couldn’t even get its supplies across the border without a hefty fee. Even after intervention by the health minister, border officials wouldn’t budge. Dorr’s team never went back.
“I still see the face of the man I was going to operate on, this little old man, he’d been so excited. It’s still sad when I think about it,” Dorr recalled.
Due to incidents like that along the way, the nonprofit learned to create contacts and sources in each country — “angels,” as they are dubbed, who can help pull some strings if the group runs into trouble.
The nonprofit’s success has also counted on its tireless volunteers from the beginning. Jeri Ward, the nonprofit’s coordinator, and Mary Ellen Sieben, the operating room director, “have been the backbone of the operation,” Dorr noted. Together, the two registered nurses have taught all the other chapters the ins and outs of carrying out medical missions, and they also arrange all of Operation Walk L.A.’s medical trips, even making pre-planning visits to find qualifying patients and scout hospital facilities.
“Dr. Dorr gave me a lot of confidence in the beginning, he taught me to just jump in and do it — with him, it’s like failure is not an option,” said Ward, who noted that she loves returning to countries to see the doctors and nurses they’ve worked with in the past. “It’s really like a big family of operating teams; we all learn from each other. I’ve met so many incredible people.”
One of the reasons for Operation Walk’s exponential growth, Dorr said, is that people fall in love with the work. Volunteering physicians and nurses will return to their home states and want to start their own hospital chapters.
“It brings you back to the romance of helping people, the reason that drives people to study so hard and get through medical school,” he said. “Sometimes you get into medicine [and] it’s a lot of bureaucratic work, there is so much regulation and rules — you can lose sight of the patient. These trips bring back that simple romance of just helping people.”
Dr. Paul Gilbert, an orthopedic surgeon at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, was one of those early converts. He and his wife, Cindy, a registered nurse, began taking trips with the group in 2005.
“We were immediately hooked. It really takes you back to the basics of why you wanted to be a doctor in the first place,” Gilbert recalled. “There is simply a patient who is suffering and we are able to fix it and take away their pain. It’s incredibly rewarding.”
In underdeveloped countries, facilities for people with disabilities are limited, and a person who cannot walk can be seen as an outcast in different parts of the world. They’re typically unable to work, causing further economic stress on their already impoverished families, Gilbert noted.
“When they get these surgeries they get their life back and can go back to feeling they’re productive and a part of society and a part of their family again,” he added.
Dorr is an icon in the orthopedic world, Gilbert noted, not just for his humanitarian work but for his pioneering research in the industry. Outside of the nonprofit work, Dorr is a professor of clinical orthopedic surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and an international leader in joint replacement. His research has aided in the design of widely used orthopedic implants, as well as small incisions and the use of computer navigation for total hip replacement. He’s also an international speaker and author. Dorr has also received the Humanitarian of the Year Award from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons for founding Operation Walk.
“He would be the first one to go into the orthopedic hall of fame if there were one,” Gilbert said.
This year, Dorr will be honored at Operation Walk’s annual fundraiser on Oct. 6 at the California Club. The fundraiser is the nonprofit’s sole way to earn money for the medical trips, which also pays for the nurses’ and technicians’ travel and accommodations, although everyone donates their time. The doctors are expected to pay their own way. For teams who are travel wary, there are also U.S.-based trips, providing underinsured Americans the chance for knee and hip replacements.
Looking ahead, Dorr said he hopes Operation Walk can solidify its national headquarters and help streamline the medical trips and travel for other chapters. The nonprofit has garnered praise in international circles, and even helped other countries view the U.S. more favorably, he said.
“Humanitarian help for people sometimes does more than politics. It just goes to show that helping other people is the most powerful thing you can do,” he said.